Tuesday, September 16, 2008

D'oh.......0 and 2

Even though nascent, the 2008 NFL season has already had its fill of stories and suprises. We have seen Tom Brady's season end due to a knee injury while Vince Young's career is in limbo as he attempts to sort out his life. Aaron Rodgers has all the Who's in Whoville saying, Brett Who, while Jay Cutler is doing his best John Elway impersonation. In Oakland, surprise, surprise, there is a rift between the head coach and Al Davis, and the New York Jets (of New Jersey) are under the NY media's microscope.

With most of these stories stealing the spotlight in the NFL, 4 teams, projected by most to still be playing come January, find themselves at 0-2 and struggling to find answers. Though it is early, and we have seen teams like the Giants and Steelers turn their seasons around in the second half and make playoff runs that resulted in Super Bowl wins, the rough starts in San Diego, Seattle, Jacksonville and Minnesota could be an indication of things to come over the next 15 weeks.


SAN DIEGO:

The Chargers are once again struggling to win games in September, as they are a combined 1-5 in the season's first month over the past two years. This season, San Diego has lost two close games on the strength of last minute scores by their opponents. Though they are an Ed Hochulli call and an Eric Weddle pass deflection away from being 2-0, there are reasons to think that this early hole will not be so easy dig out of as it was last season when the Chargers won their last 6 games to finish 11-5.

LT was limited in the AFC Championship game last year due to injuries. He was held out of the pre-season games in hopes he would be at full strength for the regular season. However, he has managed just 123 rushing yards, in part because of a jammed big toe, and has reached paydirt zero times. At 29 years old, LT is at the age when you typically see running backs go on the decline, and while Phillip Rivers (594 yards, 6 TD) has enjoyed throwing to a healthier Antonio Gates and the chance to work with Chris Chambers in the off-season, the Chargers' offense has always been centered around LT (they have finished 16th and 26th the past two seasons in pass offense). With Michael Turner in Atlanta, only Darren Sproles and rookie Jacob Hester are left to fill the shoes of LT should he continue to struggle with injury.

The Chargers have also had to deal with the loss of their biggest playmaker on defense, Shawne Merriman, and his absence is evident. Through the first two games of the season the Chargers, who finished 5th in the league last year in sacks with 42, have just two through their first two games. As we saw against Denver, the Chargers are susceptible against the pass as their secondary can be exposed when the opposing QB has time in the pocket.

Also facing the Chargers are upcoming games against New England, Indianapolis, Denver, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, all teams that are legit playoff contenders and who could make 10 wins a difficult task for Norv Turner and company.

Prognosis:

The Chargers have arguably the most talented team in the AFC.........on paper. The loss of Merriman greatly alters the indentity of the defense as well as the production. Jay Cutler dropped back 50 times against them and went down just twice, part of the reason he was able to find the end zone on 4 occasions. Without someone coming off the edge to get in the QB's face, expect to see Quentin Jammer and the rest of that secondary get torched for big plays.

LT is the X factor on this team. Without his running and pass catching abilities, as well as his nose for the end zone, teams will zero in on Rivers and the passing game. Rivers is a solid QB but will from time to time make the "what the hell was he thinking" throw and turn the ball over. Nothing has been confirmed as far as LT missing substantial time, and Turner and LT have repeatedly stated the star back is fine, but then again we heard the same thing from Shaun Alexander and Mike Holmgren a couple years back. Since 2006, the Chargers are 15-1 when LT goes for 100 yards on the ground, 10-8 when he fails to reach triple digits.

10-12 wins is probably what this team is good for given their schedule and that they still have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but with the resurgent Broncos firing on all cylinders, not to mention the potential log jam in the AFC for the two Wild Card spots, San Diego could very well be watching games in January.

In or Out of the Playoffs? Probably in.


SEATTLE SEAHAWKS:

Mike Holmgren may be flipping through his rolodex for Steve Largent's number, as the 53 year-old Hall of Famer is probably in better health than most of the Seahawks' receivers. After getting thumped by the Bills in week 1, Seattle, in large part due to two Matt Hasselbeck interceptions, lost to division rival San Francisco 33-30 in OT. Despite returning a defense that finished a modest 15th in the NFL in defense in 2007, and currently leads the league with 9 sacks, the Seahawks have surrendered 67 points through week 2 (though special teams has not helped with that total).

With Deion Branch and Bobby Engram not expected until after their bye week in week 4, and Nate Burleson having gone down with an injury against the Bills that resulted in his missing week 2, Matt Hasselbeck has had virtually no one to throw to. Last season Hasselbeck threw 200 yards plus on 11 occasions. So far this season he has yet to hit that mark while throwing just 1 TD and compelting fewer than 50.0% of his passes.

Not helping matters is a defense that gave up 321 passing yards to JT O'Sullivan and 215 yards to Trent Edwards. With Patrick Kearney, Lofa Tatupu, Julian Peterson and Marcus Trufant one would think Seattle's defense would not look so pedestrian, but this unit has just one takeaway and is surrendering 351 yards of offense. Health has not been a major concern to the defense, so it is puzzling as to why this unit struggled against two inexperienced QBs and two average offenses.

Prognosis:

Luckily for Seattle they face the St. Louis Rams, the NFL's cure for an ailing offense and defense. However, after that they come off of the bye week and face the Giants, Packers, Bucs and Pats in succesive weeks. Add on to that games against Washington, Dallas and the Niners, again, playing in the weak NFC West may not guarantee another playoff appearance for the Seahawks.

Julius Jones has been the one bright spot on this team, and Hasselbeck and the offense will benefit with the return of Engram and Branch, but the defense has to stop springing leaks and giving up so much yardage.

Right now Seattle looks like an 8-8 team that may sneak into the playoffs. However, the Cardinals and possibly the Niners could give Seattle all it can handle for the division crown.

In or Out of the Playoffs? Out.


JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS:

Many people had this team dethroning the Colts and possibly reaching the Super Bowl. They added Derrick Harvey to the defense in hopes he would be the pass rusher they had been missing while keeping the core on both offense and defense intact. However, injuries to the offensive line and a defense that has not shown up in key fourth quarter situations have been their demise. Two early season losses to two quality opponents should not concern the Jacksonville faithful.....or should it?

The Jags are two weeks into the season and are down 4 offensive linemen. Center Brad Meester is expected to miss possibly another month, while starting guards Vince Mauwai and Maurice Williams were placed on IR and are done for the year, and back up Richard Collier continues to recover after being shot earlier this month. These injuries have been one of the key reasons as to why David Garrad has been sacked 9 times already this season, and why one of the game's most dynamic running attacks is averaging just 65.5 yards a game.

Defensively the Jags have given up just 37 points through two games, but 17 of those have come in the fourth quarter, including giving up 10 points and the game in the final 4:24 against the Bills--one of which was a 9 play, 74 yard drive that gave Buffalo a 17-16 lead. With the offense struggling to produce, the defense has to protect whatever lead they get, or, as with the game against Tennessee when they got down 17-7 with under 4 minutes to play, they must keep the game a one possession game.

Prognosis:

The offense lacks playmakers other than Maurice Jones-Drew, and the passing game is there more to keep defenses off balance and prevent them from stacking the box to defend the run. Without a running game, Jacksonville will continue to struggle. The key will be for recently signed Uche Nwaneri and Milford Brown to come in and help fill the holes on the offensive line, create running lanes, and give Garrad time to throw. The lone bright spot has been the overall play of the defense. However, as mentioned, they are going to need to cover for an offense that is one of the worst in the NFL right now.

The Jags, originally thought to be a 12-14 win team, could still take the AFC South with a 12 win season. However, once the Colts get healthy and Peyton Manning starts being Peyton Manning again, the Jags may find themselves once again looking up at Indy in the division. With neither team looking too impressive at the moment, and the chance of both having the same record, Jacksonville has to take advantage of their matchups with the Colts to ensure they hold the tie-breakers will also hanging two losses on Indy's record. Also standing in the Jags way is a Titans team that is 2-0 and may get a boost in QB play with Kerry Collins.

In or Out of the Playoffs? Possibly in.


MINNESOTA VIKINGS:

With the addition of Jared Allen and the Packers' subtraction of Brett Favre, many in Minnesota felt that the Vikes would take the division........despite their QB situation. Not so much. When you hold the Colts to 18 points and score 5 times yourself, you expect to win. Well, not when your kicker is doing all of the scoring. (The Green Bay game was not much better as Minnesota out gained Green Bay 355-317 while committing 3 fewer penalties for 74 fewer yards.....and lost by 5.) The Vikings offense has sputtered thus far, scoring 21 of its 34 points via the foot of Ryan Longwell, despite back to back 100 yard games from Adrian Peterson. One problem has been poor showings on 3rd down (9-29), as well as a non-existent pass offense (308 yards through the air for Tarvaris Jackson). Not helping matters are receivers Sidney Rice and Bernard Barrian are banged up right now.

Rumors are flying that Jackson is on a very short leash, and another poor outing or two could result in a change at QB to Gus "head butt a wall" Ferotte. Though not flashy, Ferotte could be the veteran leader the Vikes need at QB. With a dynamic pair of runners to turn to, Minnesota need only to have a QB not turn the ball over as well as convert on 3rd down situations.

Not helping matters, and what could precipitate a quick change at QB, is their schedule. With Aaron Rodgers showing that he can be a top starter in this league, and the fact that the NFC North is matched up with the AFC and NFC Souths, Minnesota has little margin for error. They have 5 games left against teams that made the 2007 post-season, as well as two match-ups with division rival Chicago, meaning Minnesota will have to turn things around in a hurry.

Prognosis:

Jackson will have to greatly improve his play in order to save his job, which he probably will not do. The last time Ferotte was a full time starter was 3 seasons ago in Miami when he threw for 2,996 yards, 18 TD to 13 INT. The problem with Ferotte is his career 54% completion percentage, meaning while an upgrade over Jackson's current 50.8% for the season, he is not the most efficient passer in the game and may not help those third down situations which have killed many Viking drives thus far.

The defense has been decent thus far, but it may not be good enough to cover up a horrid passing game. (On half of its drives so far this season, the offense has had drives that gained 20 yards or fewer--including the last 5 against Indy that netted 41 yards and a missed field goal). One question about that defensive unit was the play of the secondary, which held fairly well against Manning bat was picked apart by Aaron Rodgers. The showing by Manning, following the 25-13 loss to the Bears, is more of an indication that Manning is still shaking off the rust.


Without improved QB play, plus their schedule, the Vikes are looking at a 7-9 or 8-8 season.

In or Out of the Playoffs? Out.




It is tough to say that any team is in or out after just two weeks, but the Vikings and Seahawks have some major issues facing them. Minnesota cannot move the ball while Seattle has been fairly inept on both sides of the ball. Jacksonville's offensive line is their achilles heel, and without protection for Garrard or lanes opening for Jones-Drew and Taylor, the Jaguars will once again be looking up at someone else in the AFC South. Meanwhile, the Chargers have fewer yet larger question marks. As seen in Denver, without a pass rush the Chargers are at best an average to bad defense. Meanwhile, though Rivers had a solid performance against the Broncos, he has never been the focal point of the offense. If LT misses time, teams will scheme very differently without #21 in the backfield, and we have not seen Rivers have to QB an LT-less Charger team.

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