Curing what ails NFC teams
John Clayton identifies a malady and potential cure for every NFC team.
What ails every NFC team and a potential cure. For cures to every AFC team, click here.
• Diagnosis: Confidence vital signs dropping at QB
• Cure: New Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt created a lot of debate Sunday when he used Kurt Warner to run the no-huddle offense, putting struggling Matt Leinart on the bench. Leinart has been inconsistent passing this season. His completion percentage has dropped from 56.8 to 54.1, and he's not getting the ball downfield. His yards per attempt have dropped almost 1½ yards from his rookie season in '06. Whisenhunt doesn't want to overload him, but Leinart appears to be losing his confidence. The cure? Mix in Warner at times and give Leinart easier game plans.
• Diagnosis: Offensive malaise
• Cure: Put Byron Leftwich at quarterback. In fact, expect him to be in charge in about three weeks. Leftwich is about all new head coach Bobby Petrino has right now to get something going on offense. As disappointing as Joey Harrington has been as a starter -- the offense has scored 30 points in three weeks -- he is completing nearly 69 percent of his passes. What the Falcons have lost the most without Michael Vick is in the running game. After being the No. 1 rushing team the past three years, the Falcons are averaging 89.7 yards rushing, more than a 50 percent dropoff from last season. There's no cure for this problem until next year.
• Diagnosis: Defensive malaise
• Cure: The defense remains an enigma. It gave up 34 points at home to Houston, and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins has called out his team for more accountability. The biggest problem is stopping the pass. Quarterbacks are throwing for 246.7 yards per game, and Julius Peppers hasn't settled into a pass-rushing groove. The Panthers have only two sacks in three games, and quarterbacks have a 97.7 rating against them. The cure? Leadership. Peppers must be more of a leader and play better. Dan Morgan must stay healthy. They also need a big season from defensive end Mike Rucker, who is probably in his final year with the team.
• Diagnosis: Super Bowl hangover
• Cure: Rex Grossman has regressed at quarterback. The Bears are down three Pro Bowlers on defense with injuries to Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs and Nathan Vasher. The defensive tackle position has been overhauled because of injuries, off-the-field problems and free-agent defections. Until Harris returns from his knee injury, the Bears could be average on defense. Going to Brian Griese at QB is a start. The Bears also must get Devin Hester and Greg Olsen more involved with the offense. With the Bears expected to give up more points, their offense must pick it up.
• Diagnosis: Sore spots on defense
• Cure: Maybe the Cowboys aren't as talented on defense as everyone thought. Terence Newman's absence because of a foot injury exposed a big dropoff at cornerback after the starters. Despite the addition of Ken Hamlin at safety, the team still gives up big plays in the middle of the field. The defensive line still is adjusting to some of the aggressive one-gap schemes used by new head coach Wade Phillips. This shouldn't be a big deal. Phillips must keep being aggressive in rushing DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and hunker down against the run.
• Diagnosis: Leaky defense
• Cure: Clearly, the Lions don't have the cornerbacks to hold teams under 20 points a game. So the offense must continue on hyperdrive. Maybe Jon Kitna gained so much confidence by throwing against his defense every day in practice. Kitna is on pace to throw for more than 5,200 yards and 32 touchdowns, but he's going to need to keep putting points on the scoreboard. The Lions' defense is giving up 31.3 points per game and 8.12 yards per pass attempt. Opponents have a 90.5 quarterback rating against the Lions, making virtually every opponent feel like a Pro Bowler.
• Diagnosis: Running game has weak pulse
• Cure: Unless general manager Ted Thompson can pull off some kind of a running back trade, the Packers might have to go all season with a finesse passing offense. It has worked so far, but the weather has been good. Favre is completing 64 percent of his passes while throwing a lot of short, safe passes. Brandon Jackson, DeShawn Wynn and Ryan Grant have combined for only 171 yards in three games and a 2.9-yard average. A trade is the only option. The Packers can't survive in November and December without a running threat.
• Diagnosis: Symptoms of weakness at QB
• Cure: They blew it. Coach Brad Childress might have overestimated what he had at quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson wasn't ready to take over an NFL offense that was going against any kind of a blitz, and now he's down temporarily with a groin injury. Brooks Bollinger apparently isn't the cure because Childress traded for Kelly Holcomb and started him fewer than 30 days after acquiring him. So much for off-season planning and training camp. The Vikings have only three offensive touchdown drives in 32 chances. To get through this season, they must rely on Holcolmb and Bollinger to manage the ground game and win low-scoring games.
• Diagnosis: Sudden appearance of serious symptoms
• Cure: The problems are everywhere. The defense is giving up 34.7 points a game and 9.96 yards per pass attempt. The Saints have trailed in all but five minutes of games this year, and the defense has zero sacks. The biggest disappointment on offense has been at wide receiver. Devery Henderson has as many drops as catches. Marques Colston has dropped off to 10.3 yards a catch. Sean Payton must stick to a more conventional running attack with Reggie Bush and mix in Aaron Stecker now that Deuce McAllister it out for the season with a knee injury. On defense, New Orleans must blitz more to come up with some big plays. Opposing QBs are getting too much time.
• Diagnosis: Defense on life support
• Cure: There might not be a cure this season. The defense is giving up 32.4 points a game. Except for a gutsy performance against the Redskins, the Giants have struggled against the pass. QB Eli Manning can do only so much. He's getting 24 points a game out of an offense that has lost halfback Brandon Jacobs to injury and is playing with banged-up receivers. With problems at cornerback, the Giants must stay in more safe zones, and they must get better play out of their pass-rushers. Coach Tom Coughlin must somehow make the best of a bad situation.
• Diagnosis: Offensive temperature up and down
• Cure: The problem isn't Donovan McNabb, who will have bouts of inaccuracy coming off his knee reconstruction. Eagles receivers must do a better job getting open. Coach Andy Reid did a smart thing in the 56-21 rout of the Lions by keeping in extra blockers and giving McNabb more time to pass. The Eagles used more two-receiver routes, but if the receivers can't get away from coverage, there will more incompletions and interceptions in weeks ahead. Reid must run the ball more and give McNabb more time. More maximum protection schemes and running plays will get McNabb through the season.
• Diagnosis: Sickly offense
• Cure: Although Alex Smith has been good in the clutch, he actually has taken a step backward. Despite the addition of receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie, Smith's completion percentage has dropped from 58.1 in 2006 to 51.8. The 49ers rank next to last in passing yards with only 132.2 per game. Smith must do better in the red zone. The 49ers have only seven trips to the red zone in three games, scoring three touchdowns. The cure might be going downfield more to Lelie and Jackson, but San Francisco must use more two-tight end sets to give Smith time to throw.
• Diagnosis: Offense causes major headache
• Cure: The top four blockers on the line are out with injuries, and the backfield is getting bruised. Quarterback Marc Bulger has two broken ribs. Steven Jackson is out with a groin injury. The combined salary of the remaining starting offensive linemen -- many making the minimum -- is less than $3.7 million. Coach Scott Linehan must go back to a more basic approach running the ball with Brian Leonard. He might also have to switch to Gus Frerotte if Bulger continues to be bruised. Other than that, the Rams might have to wait until next year.
• Diagnosis: Aching run defense
• Cure: The season-ending knee injury to Marcus Tubbs, the team's best run stopper, leaves a big void in the running defense. Edgerrin James ran for 128 yards against Seattle. To win in the NFC West, defenses must stop the run because the division has some of the league's best runners. Possible cures? Better play at linebacker would help as would more run blitzes. After three games, the Seahawks are surrendering 102 yards a game on the ground, but games against Frank Gore and James loom.
• Diagnosis: Broken running game
• Cure: Stay with Cadillac Williams until he gets into a groove. Jeff Garcia -- who has sparked an offense that is scoring 20.3 points a game and is hitting some big play-action passes -- has played as billed. Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard each is averaging more than 16 yards a catch. But the running game must be better. Williams, slowed by bruised ribs, has only a 3.5-yard per carry average. Jon Gruden has tried a running-back-by-committee approach by getting the ball to Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman., but that's not a cure-all. The Bucs' running game needs a steady diet of Cadillac.
• Diagnosis: Consistentitis (Lack of consistency in passing game)
• Cure: Jason Campbell seems like a quarterback who is good enough to get the Redskins into the playoff hunt, but the team needs more consistency with the passing offense. Campbell must spread the ball around. Tight end Chris Cooley has only six catches for 54 yards. Brandon Lloyd doesn't have a catch. Campbell also must improve his 52.4 percent completion rate.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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