Cleveland, Indy ready to hit panic button
Some teams are closer than others to hitting the panic button. Scouts Inc. goes division-by-division to find the biggest issues and if teams should indeed hit the button.
So is it time for Cleveland to push it and get rid of Derek Anderson? Or Green Bay to worry about its beat-up secondary? Or Seattle with its shaky passing game? Or Indianapolis with its shaky run defense? Scouts Inc. looks at every division and found the biggest panic-button issue among teams expected to make playoff runs, or who are suddenly and surprisingly looking like contenders, and deciding whether it's time to hit the button.
Getting Defensive In Washington
In a division loaded with potent offenses, led by three of the top QBs in the NFL, the Redskins' defense could be overmatched. While Washington's defense is in the middle of the pack statistically in the NFC, it's the worst in the NFC East. The Redskins need to find a way to make life much more difficult for Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Donovan McNabb and their respective offenses if they hope to survive in this division, much less earn a playoff spot.
Time to hit the Panic Button? No.
Why: The Redskins have struggled stopping the run and getting pressure on the QB. That's not a good thing in this division. But only eight teams in the NFL have allowed fewer points than Washington, and one of them, Baltimore, has played one less game. The Redskins' 4-3 scheme isn't as aggressive under Greg Blache as it was with Gregg Williams calling the plays, but it is a physical and fundamentally sound unit -- two calling cards of a Blache defense. Led by MLB London Fletcher, this defense gets to the ball carrier with multiple defenders, tackles well and is assignment-sound. But even with the addition of DE Jason Taylor, the Redskins' pass rush hasn't been as explosive as hoped. Now that he's hurt, there's even more concern as, without the rush, creating big plays becomes a problem.
What they need to do is create more pressure from sources other than the line. SLB Marcus Washington is excellent at the blitz. He plays near the line of scrimmage and is much like a 3-4 OLB in that regard and can cause matchup problems. Also, enhancing emerging star S LaRon Landry's role seems logical. Landry is a powerful and fast player who excels going forward and playing in reverse. Utilizing him more along the lines of how the Steelers use Troy Polamalu or the Colts use Bob Sanders could pay dividends. Yes, using Landry as a blitzer would compromise the back end -- he is their best DB -- but he does it all well and increasing his role seems like a logical progression in Year 2 of his promising career. Shawn Springs is an excellent CB and can keep up with most receivers one-on-one, but Carlos Rodgers is probably a better zone player than man-to-man, and Fred Smoot is up and down. Depth here is also worrisome, but still, overall this is a solid group.
Finally, if the Redskins can create pressure with a variety of blitzes -- be it from Washington or Landry -- it immediately improves the secondary. Blache's defenses have been aggressive in the past -- he spent five years as the Bears' D coordinator, and his defenses forced 138 turnovers -- so this isn't completely out of character. The scheme is solid, they play smart and hard and just need to generate a little more pressure.
Can't Cover Up Secondary Problems In Green Bay
The Packers are known for their aggressive secondary and love to play press coverage on the perimeter. Problem is, starting CB Al Harris is likely to miss an extended period of time -- if not the whole season -- with a torn spleen and Charles Woodson is playing on a broken toe. Without these two corners -- among the best in the league -- opposing offenses won't waste any time attacking what could be perceived as a weak link.
Time to hit the Panic Button? No.
Sanders will also look to generate a little more pressure. If the Packers play more zone, expect to see more interior twist stunts between ends and tackles, or a linebacker coming on the blitz with a zone drop from a defensive lineman into a short area. When the Packers do play pure man coverage -- and they will still do this a lot -- it frees up other players to blitz the line of scrimmage without any coverage responsibility and just get after the QB. As the defense puts more pressure on the QB, it also helps take the pressure off the secondary. There's no need to panic in Green Bay. While the secondary can't replace Harris, it's talented enough to still have success without him.
Saints Secondary A Primary Concern
The Saints have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and can strike from anywhere on the field, but it doesn't matter, as they make opposing offenses look explosive as a well. The Saints' pass defense is currently allowing 258.7 yards a game. If the Saints are to be serious contenders in the NFC South and go deep into the playoffs, the secondary must get better.
Time to hit the Panic Button? No.
Why: The Saints were very aggressive in the offseason about improving their defense. They added three new corners, signing free agents Randall Gay (Patriots) and Aaron Glenn (Jaguars), and drafting Tracy Porter in the second round. Last year's starting corner Mike McKenzie is also now back in the mix, after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year, and they'll need him to return with the same speed and mobility. They also added DE Bobby McCray (Jaguars) and drafted Sedrick Ellis in the first round to improve a pass rush, along with stabilizing the interior of their front seven with MLB Jonathan Vilma, acquired in a trade with the Jets. For all those improvements, the Saints still can't defend the pass or create consistent pressure on the passer right now.
But that is exactly the reason patience, not panic, is needed right now. It takes time to make the transition. It takes time for players to get familiar with the schemes, and for the coaching staff to improve its understanding of the players' strengths and weaknesses when it comes to matchups. Simply said, the coaches are still learning the players and it's early in the season. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs run a conventional 4-3 scheme that utilizes a four-man rush in nickel (or sub) packages to generate pressure. He asks his linebackers to get to underneath spots quickly, which places his corners in man-to-man situations at times depending on the design of the coverage and pattern recognition on the backend. The strength of this defense is its four-man line led by Will Smith and Charles Grant. It also has a lot of versatility with Ellis and McCray, which should place even more pressure on opposing teams' protection schemes. But the defensive line is not getting to the QB on a consistent basis. When teams play the Saints, they are relying on the matchups outside on the perimeter, along with quick timing throws that neutralize the pass rush. The simple solution is to send an extra blitzer, but that places even more pressure on the backend.
If the Saints' pass rush improves, especially on third down, the Saints' secondary will get better as the season goes along. It also comes back to guys' just getting more and more comfortable. With the variety of stunts, twists, and other moves the linemen are asked to perform, it takes a little time to get comfortable. Every player does the same thing a little differently, so there's a feeling-out process. It's the same for coaches to learn strengths and weaknesses and not put those players in a position to do something they're not comfortable doing. This front four is too talented not to be able to create pressure. Once that happens, this secondary gets much better.
Seahawks' Passing Game Grounded
Seattle's passing game is struggling. QB Matt Hasselbeck started the season with two games with a QB rating of under 50 and the Seahawks have suffered injuries to their top three receivers. The NFC West is supposed to be the Seahawks' for the taking, but if the offense doesn't start improving, Seattle's run of four straight years in the playoffs could be in jeopardy.
Time to hit the Panic Button? No.
Why: Hasselbeck is a quality quarterback. He is not a future Hall of Famer, but he does have a good command of the West Coast offense. He knows how to distribute the ball and is very good at protecting it as well. The West Coast offense requires the quarterback and his receivers to be on the same page more than other schemes. The revolving door in Seattle at receiver has led to a lot of uncertainty and miscommunication. The good news is that Hasselbeck's favorite receivers, Deion Branch and Bobby Engram, are expected to play following this week's bye. Branch and Engram understand the offensive scheme and are consistently on the same page with Hasselbeck as far as when to convert their routes depending on the defense they see. The better news is the play of second-round draft pick TE John Carlson. He is currently leading the team with 12 receptions and is looking like the tight end Mike Holmgren has lacked since arriving in Seattle. A quality tight end can pay huge dividends to the overall passing game, opening up areas of the field as well as taking pressure off the outside receivers.
Seattle's ground game is also showing signs of life. A lot of the success of this offense is predicated on setting up the play-action pass with a solid ground game. Hasselbeck is one of the better quarterbacks in the league when it comes to the play-action fake, forcing defenses to stop for a split second to honor the run. It allows his receivers time to get open and create plays in the passing game. Bottom line is injuries have hurt this offense more than anything else. Even Hasselbeck has been playing with a back injury. As everyone returns to full strength and the timing comes back, this passing game will be fine.
New England Knows Cassel Isn't Brady, But Should He Be?
It has become clear in his two starts that Matt Cassel is no Tom Brady. But does he need to be? The Patriots might be missing some of the leadership qualities Brady brings to the table, but it was the defense that struggled against Miami. Still, the questions linger about whether Cassel can lead the Patriots to the playoffs, and a loss to the Dolphins only made them get louder.
Time to hit the Panic Button? No.
Cleveland Knows Backup Is Always Most Popular QB
The Browns enter Week 4 with the 32nd-ranked offense and the 31st-ranked pass offense in the NFL. They are also 32nd in points scored. Coming into a season with raised expectations based on the production of this offense last year, the blame falls on the shoulders of starting QB Derek Anderson. With Brady Quinn waiting in the wings, some are beginning to wonder whether it's time to pull Anderson and insert Quinn.
Time to hit the Panic Button? No (But keep your finger on the button).
Why: First, Anderson deserves one more start, meaning he has at least the first half at Cincinnati to get things turned around. Even though Anderson struggled in a late-season game in Cincinnati last year, he had a coming-out party in his first career start of last season in Week 2. Anderson won 10 of his 15 starts last season and was rewarded with a long-term contract. The Bengals are 12th in pass defense and last in sacks, which might give Anderson more time to show off the arm we saw in 2007. Also, remember Anderson missed time in the preseason with a concussion, and WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow also missed time or were limited in the preseason. The Browns showed rust in the preseason, and it has carried over to the regular season.
Second, Anderson is not the only problem with the offense. Edwards had a great season last year, but he also led the NFL in drops. Once again, he is not catching the ball nor is he running crisp routes. Plus, the offensive line is not playing as well as it did last year, and Anderson is getting less time to throw and hit more often.
Third, what has Quinn shown to this point? Just because the Browns caught lightning in a bottle last season by inserting Anderson and releasing opening-week starter Charlie Frye doesn't mean it will happen again. The timing of the offense is not very good, because it was not together enough in the preseason, and Quinn has fewer reps with the first unit than Anderson. Still, if Anderson struggles in the first half, the Browns have to do something to try to wake up the offense. Quinn would be the guy, and it makes sense to get him a half of playing time before the bye week. He'd then have the bye week to work with the first team before hosting the blitz-happy defensive packages of Steve Spagnuolo and the Giants.
AFC SouthColts Run Defense Cause For Concern
After losing to Jacksonville and giving up 236 yards rushing, two things became very apparent. First, the Colts could very well have the league's worst run defense, and second, not even the return of Bob Sanders in 3-5 weeks can change that. Without Sanders for the next month or so, this is going to get worse before it gets better.
Time to hit the Panic Button? Yes.
Why: Granted, Jacksonville is known for its power running game behind Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, but the Jaguars were down three linemen and had the 28th-ranked run offense when they played the Colts. This wasn't exactly Jacksonville at its best. While it would be easy to put it on the loss of Sanders, there is so much more here. The Colts' defensive tackles are the worst in the NFL. They cut DT Ed Johnson after Week 1 when he was involved in another off-the-field incident. The team is playing Raheem Brock, a natural DE, inside as a 3-technique, and he is a non-factor without a massive, block-gobbling NT. The scheme, while conducive to rushing the passer, is not built to stop the run. The Colts can be a little stubborn at times with the Cover 2 defense, and often do not drop an extra safety down into the box. While the Colts have a fast front seven, it is undersized, struggles to get off blocks and often overpursues, making it susceptible to the cut-back run. While MLB Gary Brackett and WLB Freddie Keiaho are very talented, they are often hung out to dry by their defensive line firing up the field, and asked to make a play against an RB who is running downhill right at them without even being forced to stop or cut. The only solution right now is for the Colts to consistently drop an eighth defender in the box and play more Cover 1 in the back end. They also need to search their DT emergency list, because you can't stop the run without solid defensive tackles, and the Colts just don't have a good group there.
Denver D Back To Drawing Board
The Denver defense is ranked 30th in yards allowed per game and last in passing yards allowed per game. The Broncos are 3-0 because the offense is the highest-scoring in the league. Obviously, the Broncos can score, but until they find a way to stop teams with more consistency, each game becomes a back-and-forth contest that could turn disastrous with one play.
Time to hit the panic button? No.
Why: The Broncos should stay the course because they have options on defense and the problem is fixable. First of all, look at who they've played -- New Orleans and San Diego, who are both in the top five in passing offense. No one else has played two offenses of this caliber, much less in back-to-back weeks.
The Broncos have an elite CB in Champ Bailey, who can match up with any WR in the game and play solid defense on his side of the field. Most teams don't have a player of this caliber in their secondary and his playmaking ability often forces a QB to look another direction. The other players in the secondary could benefit from an improved pass rush. One reason Denver hasn't had a lot of success in pressuring the QB is partly due to its personnel. The Broncos don't have an elite pass rusher who can consistently defeat blocks or force double teams to free other players up front.
Broncos defensive coordinator Bob Slowik has recently implemented a new look with a 3-4 alignment. This package can cause a lot of confusion. To run a 3-4, you need two important pieces -- linebackers and a nose tackle. The Broncos are carrying seven LBs, and they already have an experienced NT in Dewayne Robertson, who started in this role for the Jets last season and is strong enough and quick enough to hold up inside. The OLB roles in this scheme help give the pass rush and pass coverage a lot of flexibility with their ability to rush or drop from an outside alignment. Because the Broncos have some depth in this area, they can start incorporating different looks to disrupt blocking schemes and cause confusion for an offense's pass-protection principles. Trying to prepare for a 4-3 or a 3-4 individually is tough enough for an offense, but when a team uses both in the same game, it can be extremely effective. By overloading one side of the formation, it can create mismatches. The Broncos will have the option of rushing five players, four players or three players at any given time with this look.
Once the Broncos' players get a full understanding of their individual roles, they will have a ton of flexibility to attack opposing QBs, which should leave their DBs less exposed in coverage. The key for them will be to getting to the point where they can run this scheme without breakdowns as quickly as possible.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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