Fine Line Mailbag

September 21, 2010

From Temple: “Hi Tom, nice post on using home field advantage in enhancing a pass rush. How strong is this effect league-wide? Could my Rams pay efficiently for a higher-range end who plays outside and at least make folks at the Edward Jones dome happy?”

Thanks for the question Temple! The big question mark here is whether or not shelling out a 4-6 million a year for a speed rushers who makes headlines and casual fans happy is worth it, because that’s what it takes to keep talent like Allen and Freeney around.

That said, as a former St. Louis resident I have experienced the Edward Jones dome (both as a spectator and as a player) and the arena certainly qualifies as a place that gets loud enough to give defensive linemen the extra step they might need to go from good to dominant.

In fact the Rams organization seems to agree with both of us, since they drafted and signed defensive end Chris Long (yes, Howie’s son) and are paying him a salary that approaches that of Freeney and Allen. Long isn’t as speedy as Freeney or Allen though, and is more of an all-around style end like Strahan or Taylor. He has an almost 50/50 home/away split on his NFL career sacks although he has only recorded 9 sacks in his first two seasons with the Rams. That does not quite match his 2007 season with Virginia in which earned 14 sacks over 13 games or justify his 2nd overall draft position.

So I do think the Rams could efficiently pay for an electric sack machine like Dwight Freeney or Jared Allen to bring some excitement back to the franchise, but their recent effort to do just that has regrettably fallen short… so far.


NFL Preview

September 10, 2010

After months of drama, it’s time to forget Roethlisberger’s indiscretions, Favre’s indecision, and Al Davis’ incompetence and start the NFL season. Here is the Power Rank’s 2010 NFL preview.

AFC East.

If you’re like me you’ve been watching HBO’s Hard Knocks and head coach Rex Ryan has intimidated you into believing that his Jets are going to repeat their playoff run. Darrelle Revis (CB, 24) has a contract, Ladanian Tomlinson (RB, 21) is in town, and Mark Sanchez (QB, 6) has a season of experience under his belt. Add this to an underrated receiving corps and you’ll be hearing lots of “J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!” cheers this winter.

The division doesn’t stop in New York though. Randy Moss (WR, 81) and Tom Brady (QB, 12) are getting older but they’re still a major threat to any defense and head coach Bill Belichick can be expected to field a competitive team as he always does, even if they won’t be as dominant as they have been in the past.

The Miami Dolphins and their wildcat offensive scheme can be expected to make a splash again this year with the addition of receiving phenom (and headcase) Brandon Marshall (WR, 19). It will be interesting to see how Ronnie Brown (RB, 23) and Ricky Williams (RB, 34) will perform when teams can’t stack the box against them and their dominant offensive tackle Jake Long (T, 77).

The Bills have done little to improve, and their record will show it this year.

AFC North.

It’s the Raven’s year. Ray Rice (RB, 27) is looking to improve on a great season and Joe Flacco (QB, 5) is expected to break out with new targets like Anquan Boldin (WR, 81) and TJ Houshmandzadeh (WR). With a rock solid Greg Mattison coached defense led by Ray Lewis (MLB, 52) to keep opponents at bay, the Ravens are looking to play a game in February this year.

The Steelers and the Bengals will be looking to spoil the Raven’s Superbowl dreams with teams loaded with talent. The Bengals offense of Carson Palmer (QB, 5), Terrell Owens (WR, 81), and Chad Ochocinco (WR, 85), reads like an All-Star program… from the 2004 season. If they can collectively shake off the dust they will be a killer trio, but don’t expect this scenario to be likely. Pittsburgh enters the season without Big Ben (QB, 7) and in disarray offensively. But you can’t count out a Pittsburgh defense that’s 2 seasons removed from Superbowl glory. Expect some late season heroics that will see the men in black in the hunt for the postseason.

The Browns have been making moves to improve their team, but with Montario Hardesty (RB, 31) shredding his ACL they seem to be the wrong moves. At least they got rid of Brady Quinn though, right?

AFC South.

The Colts haven’t gone anywhere. Peyton Manning (QB, 18) will continue to be the best in the NFL (and possibly history) and he’s got all of the same targets that he had last year, plus Anthony Gonzalez (WR, 11). The really bad news for Colts haters: Bob Sanders (SS, 21) is back and is looking good in the defensive backfield.

Don’t expect to see anyone else take this division, but don’t be surprised if there’s at least one and maybe even two wildcards coming from the South. The Texans are a lot of analyst’s breakout pick this year, but they have been for the last few years running. Matt Schaub (QB,8) has the tools on the outside led by Andre Johnson (WR, 80), but injuries and running back controversy may continue to plague this team.

The Titans return with Chris Johnson (RB, 28) hoping to repeat and improve on his 2000 yard season, but that may prove difficult with the loss of blocker Kevin Mawae (C). Vince Young (QB, 10) rounds out the offensive attack that will keep the Titans competitive with any team in the NFL.

The Jaguars’ explosive back Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, 32) is expected to start the season healthy, but preseason injuries leave doubts about his effectiveness this year. With little passing attack and a lackluster defense, expect the Jags to stay in limbo this year.

AFC West.

Yet again, it’s going to be all Chargers this year in the AFC West. Phillip Rivers (QB, 17) will continue to throw touchdowns with or without Vincent Jackson (WR, 83), and running back Ryan Matthews (RB, 24) from Fresno State seems to be everyone’s pick for Rookie of the Year. Don’t forget the explosive and versatile Darren Sproles (RB, 43) and the solid defense that will help the Chargers slide into what may be the easiest playoff slot in the NFL this season.

Let’s look at the other quarterbacks in this divison: Cassel (KC), Orton/Tebow/Quinn (DEN), and Jason Campbell (OAK). Some people are big on Jason Campbell (QB,8) to finally breakout, others think Matt Cassel (QB, 7) will regain his Patriot glory… don’t buy it. These guys are mediocre at best and the only target worth mentioning on all three teams is Dwayne Bowe (WR, 82) of Kansas City. Don’t expect to see any of these teams in January this year. If you’re like me, you’re just hoping that rookie Tim Tebow (QB, 15) will get a chance to skipper the Broncos and show what his athleticism and poor mechanics can do.

NFC East.

The best division in the NFL is just too close to call. The Cowboys bring back Tony Romo (QB, 9), a stacked backfield, a nasty defense, and a possible future star in Dez Bryant (WR, 88). The Eagles return with their signature defensive power and a very young but very talented offense led by Kevin Kolb (QB, 4), DeSean Jackson (WR, 10), Jeremy Maclin (WR, 18), and Brent Celek (TE, 87). The Giants didn’t get the better of the Manning brothers but Eli (QB, 10) is a solid performer with good targets in Steve Smith (WR, 12) and Hakeem Nicks (WR, 88), and the third strong defense in the division.

The only team the won’t be on top of this royal rumble is Washington. The Redskins’ strategy of overspending on aging stars will continue to haunt them as Donovan McNabb (QB, 5) and Clinton Portis (RB, 26) will not live up to their 2004 stat lines, which will only be a shock to the Washington front office.

NFC North.

As a Packer fan, it pains me to say the you can expect to see more purple this January. Brett Favre (QB, 4) is back for one reason, and that is to win a Superbowl. The hall of famer is backed by the single most dominant player in the game, Adrian Peterson (RB, 28), and pass rushing media darling Jared Allen (DE, 69) (for more on Allen, check out this week’s Fine Line).

The Packers will be one of the most dangerous teams on the gridiron this year. Aaron Rodgers (QB, 12) is enjoying a statistically unprecedented start to his career with a bevy of targets that can score almost at will. Veteran slant receiver Donald Driver (WR, 80) and burner Greg Jennings (WR, 85) are joined by the emerging talent of Jermichael Finley (TE, 88), James Jones (WR, 89), and Jordy Nelson (WR, 87). Charles Woodson (CB, 21) and Clay Matthews (OLB, 52) lead the defense with the most takeaways in the league, but the Green Bay defense also has some big holes that make them more porous than consistent, which will cost them over the season.

The Bears welcome new offensive coordinator Mike Martz who will have little to work with this year. Calling Jay Cutler (QB, 6) a gunslinger won’t make him Brett Favre (MIN), and even though Matt Forte (RB, 22) is poised for comeback year it won’t be enough to keep this offense from stalling on a weekly basis.

The Lions are likely to continue to be the worst team in the NFL, but at least they are rebuilding aggressively with Matthew Stafford (QB, 9), Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (WR, 81), and Jahvid Best (RB, 44). Look for this squad to make waves in my 2013 season preview.

NFC South.

The reigning Superbowl champs won’t have the magic of 2009, but the Saints will still be a force this year. Drew Brees (QB, 9) and his targets Marques Colston (WR, 12), Jeremy Shockey (TE, 88), and emerging Robert Meachem (WR, 17) will perform on a weekly basis in one of the most potent offenses in the league. The defense was a surprise last year and won’t perform quite as well as last year, but the noise of the awakened “Who dat” nation will support them at home as a solid 12th man.

The Falcons whole team hit a sophomore slump last year as Matt Ryan (QB, 2), Michael Turner (RB, 33), and Roddy White (WR, 84) all failed to live up to high expectations as the team was plagued with injuries and misfortune. Expect this year to go by more smoothly, for Turner to return to dominance, and the Falcons to become competitive again.

The Panthers and Buccaneers have always been known for solid defenses but their lackluster offensive traditions will hold them back again this year. Carolina wisely dumped Jake Delhomme, but haven’t filled the spot with experience, and that will cost them. Tampa Bay also has quarterback woes even though Kellen Winslow Jr. (TE, 82) is sure to be one of the best targets in the league.

NFC West.

Someone has to get into the playoffs by default from this division, and it’s a shame.

The 49ers will most likely win out in this division with a nasty defense led by Patrick Willis (MLB, 52) and under the tutelage of head coach Mike Singletary. Their offense will continue to pound the ball on with Frank Gore (RB, 21) and the new addition of veteran running back Brian Westbrook the ground attack may be even more potent that usual. Vernon Davis (TE, 85) will snag a few touchdowns from Alex Smith (QB, 11) but don’t expect the passing attack to be featured in San Francisco this year.

The Cardinals still have Larry Fitzgerald (WR, 11) and Steve Breaston (WR, 15), but they’ve lost Anquan Boldin (WR) and Kurt Warner (QB), and have recently cut Matt Leinart (QB). For a team that lives and dies with their air attack, you can expect this team to die many painful deaths on the field this year.

Pete Carroll seems to be cleaning house in Seattle this year, cutting TJ Houshmanzadeh (WR) and picking up 6 million dollars of his salary while the Ravens enjoy his talent. Veteran running back Julius Jones is also unemployed this fall. The message from Seattle: we’re rebuilding, don’t expect us to win this year.

St. Louis seems to have picked a gem in Sam Bradford (QB,8) who’s looked sharp leading the offense this preseason, but the Rams’ problems go beyond what one rookie quarterback can fix. Expect Bradford and Steven Jackson (RB, 39) to pull out a couple wins this year but not a whole lot more than that.

The Fine Line – Week 1

September 9, 2010

Hi everyone, my name is Tom Kellogg and I’m going to be providing the Power Rank faithful with football insights through the 2010 season.  As a former lineman and current line coach, I also hope to shed some light on one of the more obscure parts of the game, line play.

Everyone knows deep down that the line is of critical importance to a football team.  Announcers talk about the action “in the trenches”, coaches say that it’s the key to the game, and general managers spend high draft picks on these no-name players.  But since these players score no points, acquire almost no stats, and have zero fantasy relevance they remain the neglected step-children of the league.

The NFL is starting the season right with an NFC championship rematch between the Saints and the Vikings, whose defense is led by one of the more recognizable linemen in the league, defensive end Jared Allen.  Allen is everything one could want from a defensive end:  he’s fast, strong, emotional, and a sack machine.  Last year Allen racked up 14.5 sacks, so can we expect to see him getting up close and personal with Drew Brees in New Orleans this week?

The short answer:  No.

The biggest single advantage offensive linemen have over defensive linemen is that they know the snap count, which gives them half a step before the defensive player can attack. This critical half step can be the difference between placing a 300lb body between a speed rusher like Allen, and leaving him with nothing but open space to the quarterback.

When teams play in domes like Minnesota does, the sound can get deafening for fans and players alike.  When a linemen can’t hear the quarterback’s cadence, he loses his advantage and can’t do his job as well.  For proof that playing at home in a dome is a critical factor in a sackmaster’s repertoire, just look at Jared Allen.

In his two seasons with the Vikings, Allen has tallied 62% of his sacks at home.  Last year he only had 5 sacks on the road, outside of their dome’s din.  If you think Allen is an aberration, think again.  Dwight Freeny is another speedy sack-happy defensive end who enjoys the loud confines of a covered home stadium.  Over his career at Indianapolis, Freeny has recorded 60% of his 84 sacks at home.  Freeny’s teammate Robert Mathis has also recorded 60% of his sacks at home.

Compare this with some marquee defensive ends that play outside.  Recently retired Michael Strahan racked up 141.5 sacks in his career with the New York Giants, but only 49% of the quarterbacks were crushed at home.  Jason Taylor recorded 127.5 sacks with Miami and Washington, with only 51% earned at home.  Unlike a Jared Allen or Dwight Freeny, these pass rush specialists can be expected to impact games both at home and on the road.

In last year’s NFC championship game Jared Allen had no sacks against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.  In fact, Brees was only sacked once all game and threw for 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Allen’s pass rush was not a major factor in that game, and it will most likely not be a factor in tonight’s game either.

That’s the difference a half a step can make for speed rushers like Allen and Freeny who rely on the noise at their home fields to give them an extra few inches in getting around offensive tackles.  Don’t get me wrong, these players are still tremendous athletes and playmakers on any field but don’t buy into the media hype and expect these pass rushers to dominate the line when they play on the road.

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