David Syvertsen is back with his look at the strength and weakness of each team in the NFC East.
New York Giants
Interior Offensive Line Depth
The Giants rely on their offensive line as much as any team in the NFL. Their running game ranks at or near the top in comparison to their opponents. That was when they had wide receiver Plaxico Burress which made teams think twice about stacking the box and leaving defensive backs to cover him one on one downfield. With unproven and in most cases untested youngsters competing to be in the mix of the weekly passing game, Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride is going to rely on the power rushing attack to move the chains and put points on the scoreboard. Pro Bowlers Chris Snee and Shaun O’Hara are a solid one-two bunch in the middle of the offensive line, but should one of them go down with an injury, there is a gaping hole that has been luckily avoided the past couple of seasons. If the Giants offensive line takes a step back, the dominant running game becomes human and places a lot of pressure on Eli Manning and the unknown receivers.
With possibly the fiercest pass rush in the NFL, there should be plenty of opportunities for the Giants’ defensive backs to force turnovers. However the middle of the field was a spot that was consistently exposed. Part of the issue lies with middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, but Giants’ safeties combined for just six interceptions in 2008, three of which by James Butler whom left for St. Louis. Second year and 2008 first round pick Kenny Phillips was a reliable tackler and underneath cover man but struggled to make plays on the ball. Michael Johnson is at his best working through traffic in the box and has limited ability in coverage. If the Giants could find a rangy player that can read the quarterback and make a play on the ball, they would be virtually impossible to move the ball downfield with consistency via the air attack.
Dual Threat Tight End
While the Eagles are finally rid of their disappointing 2003 second round draft pick LJ Smith, the hole at the tight end position is still there. With an offense that favors the underneath passing attack, trying to put a lot of pressure on the opposing linebackers, a tight end that can catch the ball is a tremendous asset. However the Eagles like to run the ball inside and out, making the edge blocking responsibilities of the tight end vital. Rookie Cornelius Ingram could turn out to be a strong receiving option from the position but his potential as a blocker appears to be limited. Brent Celek and Matt Schobel are good enough blockers but achieve little when it comes to hauling in passes and opening things up for the speedy downfield threats at the wide receiver position. The Eagles offense would be much more difficult to anticipate and predict if they had a tight end that could do it all.
Strong Side Linebacker
The conversion Chris Gocong made from collegiate defensive end to NFL linebacker has not panned out the way the Eagles were hoping. He still appears to be hesitant and slow to react at the point of attack despite the simplifications Jim Johnson has made to the strong side position. The Eagles want instinctive players that can fly around and make aggressive tackles. He has just three sacks in two years to his name and considering the amount of blitzing the Eagles defense throws at opposing offenses, that is a number in need of vast improvement. The competition he has next to him for the starting spot is far too easy to beat, thus the Eagles may not even be getting his top potential on gameday due to position security.
Blind Side Protector
The Cowboys have been dealing with the most penalized left tackle in the game for a few years because of his reliability when it came to keeping the edge rushers off the quarterback. However now that Flozell Adams is 34 years old and visibly slowing down at a rapid rate, Tony Romo’s blind side is no longer as secure as it needs to be. He has played over 170 games in the NFL trenches, a number that most offensive linemen do not see. With the NFL game getting faster with each season, Adams is becoming a liability to Romo. His power seems to be depreciating too as the Cowboys struggled to run behind him in 2008. There is nothing behind him that spells confidence and that is a position that every team would hate to have an issue with.
Linebacker with Presence vs. The Run
While the Cowboys run defense, statistically speaking, were a top ten unit in 2008, the lack of solid run defender at the second level is something that could easily derail the team down the stretch in 2009. It is such a vital component to December football and with games against the Giants, Chargers, Redskins, and Eagles post-Thanksgiving whom all possess strong rushing attacks, the pressure will be on. The addition of Keith Brooking is not the long term solution and he may not even be the short term answer. Jay Ratliff is a unique 3-4 nose tackle that slants and penetrates rather than one that consumes blockers. Brooking struggles to break off blocks and Bradie James showed in 2008 that his decline in overall play was underway. If a team in the NFC East is weak up the middle, the chances of contending for the division crown are little-to-none.
Very much like the situation with Flozell Adams in Dallas, the Redskins are starting to experience a declining left tackle that took a step back in 2008. Chris Samuels will turn 32 in a month and a move to the right side may be in his near future. While he will be good enough for Jason Campbell’s blind side in 2009, a plan geared for the future needs to be put in place. Stephon Hayer lost his job in 2008 and his current in house competition Mike Williams has yet to put together a solid season despite being in the league for five years. In a division that hosts some of the game’s top pass rushers, the Redskins cannot overlook this problem if they want to compete.
Every Down Strong Side Linebacker
What the Redskins are doing with Brian Orakpo is interesting. His best fit is at defensive end where he can put his hand in the dirt, and explode off the edge and collapse the blind side of the quarterback’s pocket. However the decision to place him at the hybrid end/linebacker on the strong side has been made for his rookie season. While he looked better than expected in coverage drills during pre-draft workouts, Orakpo’s future will be as an end. They simply want to get him on the field as much as possible, thus the decision to put him behind the defensive line. The future of that front seven is up in the air as Orakpo will eventually be an end and London Fletcher approaches the finish to his spectacular career. HB Blades has shown signs of being the eventual replacement for Fletcher but there is absolutely nothing to be secure with at the strong side linebacker position. If there was something there, the job would not have been given to Orakpo so easily considering he spent his collegiate career as an end.