The AFC East has the potential to be the League’s best, but each team has a few defined holes left to fill. David Syverstsen breaks down the weaknesses of the AFC East.
When the weak-armed Chad Pennington is the one dispersing the football to pass catchers, the chances of having a deep package when it comes to throwing the ball downfield is slim-to-none. His physical limitations are simply too great to take a lot of chances downfield. That makes it very difficult for an offense to keep their opponents guessing as there is a less amount of space the defense needs to cover. With that said, the lack of the Miami deep ball game does not start and end with Pennington. While the receiving core is good enough to move the ball, there is a gaping hole when searching for a true deep threat. Ted Ginn has the speed once he is in space but teams do not fear his homerun ability as he caught just two touchdowns and averaged just 14.1 yards per reception. He, along with the likes of Greg Camrillo and Davonne Bess are at their best underneath and within the intermediate routes. Separation is an issue at times with these receivers but if they had an over-the-top threat that kept safeties honest, the Dolphins would have a better shot at improving their 30th ranked passing offense.
Interior Space Eater
Jason Ferguson was brought in from Dallas by Bill Parcells to do what he did for the Big Tuna for the Cowboys and Jets. Occupy space and blockers to allow the middle of the defense to fly around and make tackles without being touched. The soon to be 35 year old started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2008 and helped anchor the top five defense in Miami’s return to postseason football. However he plays the most vital component to the 3-4 defensive scheme and there is little to speak of behind him. The Dolphins gave up 4.2 yards per carry and when comparing that to the 3.3 that the Steelers and Vikings allowed respectively, there is some work that still needs to be done. Ferguson is no longer the thumper in the middle that can play every running down all sixteen weeks. On top of that, his career may come to a halt with the next injury, leaving the Dolphins with nothing to brag about at the oh-so-important nose tackle position.
New England Patriots
After one of the best seasons in NFL history, the Patriots quickly found out the hard way just how close they were to mediocrity. Anytime a team loses their quarterback for the season, their chances of sustaining success are severely limited. However the way the Patriots offensive line was exposed Super Bowl XLII paved the way for opponents to attack the pocket against New England. Their offensive line was severely overrated throughout the 2007 season and once Brady went down, that group was exposed because they had a human calling the shots instead of an immortal. The left side of the line allowed an unofficial 13 sacks in 2008. Both Matt Light and Logan Mankins struggle in the power game and have a tough time holding their ground against pass rushers that understand the leverage battle. When they are up against that kind of opponent, the pocket collapses quicker and leaves Brady exposed to the exact same kind of hits that ended his 2008 campaign. The front office addressed the offensive line with a couple of late round picks this past April but considering what this team looks like without Brady, there needs to be at least one addition to this group of pass blockers that can come in and start right away.
The Patriots defense is based on power more so than speed, but their lack of explosion off the edge hurt them in 2008. Adalius Thomas is a guy that Bill Belichick wants to use in a variety of roles based on the matchup problems he proposes with his combination of size, strength, and speed. However without another pure edge rusher, Thomas has to spend too much time on the outside. Richard Seymour led the Patriots with 8 sacks and Thomas was next in line with a mere 5. The Patriots are expected to play a lot of football this season with the lead which will lead to a lot of passing attempts by the opposition. That extra edge rusher that could decrease the amount of time a quarterback has to survey the field and take double teams off of Seymour and Thomas. Without the pressure to get rid of the ball quickly, the Patriots could be in for a weekly shootout and it does not matter how good your offense is, that is never a good way to play football down the stretch.
New York Jets
In an offense that featured a lot of downfield passing, one has to wonder how not one wide receiver with more than one catch averaged more than 12.1 yards per reception. Even though the expected offensive approach to the 2009 season will consist of a 65:35 run to pass ratio, there will still need to be a deep threat on the field. Nate Washington, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers and currently of the Tennessee Titans, would have been the perfect free agent acquisition. However the Jets are now stuck with underneath threats Dustin Keller and Jericho Cotchery to bring the passing game to respectability. Mark Sanchez will have the starting job by Halloween at the very latest, but even his poise and accuracy will not be able to bring a healthy balance to this offense without a legit downfield threat. They don’t need Andre Johnson or Randy Moss but without someone that can keep the eighth defender out of the box, the Jets offense will struggle to reach the 20 point mark on a weekly basis.
Rex Ryan stated that he would not try to basically create another Baltimore Ravens defense here in New York. But honestly, why wouldn’t he? Throughout his tenure in Baltimore, he put together one of the most dominant units on the field year in and year out. Sure he has different personnel to work with, but the scheme is going to be similar. He is going to try and confuse the opposition with outrageous blitz packages and put players in positions that they are not used to being in. A key example would be what he did with Haloti Ngata, dropping him in to a linebacker’s cover zone. The key to a scheme such as the one being implemented is versatility across the board. He cannot get crazy with his scheme if he has a bunch of one dimensional athletes. The Jets have plenty of talent up front and in the defensive backfield, but he is a bit thin at linebacker. The linebackers in Baltimore were always versatile and could attack from all angles as well as hold up against the run and chase from behind. David Harris and Bart Scott form a nice duo in the middle, but should one of them go down there will be no versatility in the middle of that defense to speak of.
A strong group in the trenches is essential to success in the NFL. And when you play in a cold weather division such as the AFC East, that point is exemplified. The Bills probably made the right decision in trading the unhappy and lazy Jason Peters to Philadelphia while his value was high, but the chances of Trent Edwards using his downfield weapons was severely limited with that transaction. The Bills brought in two great interior blockers via the draft in Andy Levitre and Eric Wood, but as of right now the tackles are Langston Walker and Brad Butler. An average group of pass rushers can beat those two with ease. If the Bills are going to seriously contend against defenses led by Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan, they need to vastly improve both tackle positions. Without a boost in quality at those spots, the Bills will continue to be less than mediocre when it comes to putting points on the board.
The Buffalo Bills had a team total of 24 sacks in 2008. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys had 20 sacks in 2008. While the Bills essentially added two pass rushers this offseason with the first round selection of Aaron Maybin and the return of Aaron Schobel (11 games missed in ’08), they are still light years behind Super Bowl contenders when it comes to getting to the passer. Maybin is the typical boom or bust prospect and if he busts, the Bills have nobody that warrants a double team for both the short and long term. If the Bills are comfortable with their group up front, they need to look elsewhere for sacks. Kawika Mitchell and Paul Posluszny are nice options at linebacker, but Keith Ellison’s spot could be upgraded with a linebacker that can blitz well and get to the passer. In a division that is chasing the Patriots and will be chasing the Patriots for the next few years, sacks and QB pressures will be vital and the Bills have a lot of adding to do before they are a concern.