Tag Archives: NFL

NFL Draft Review: Atlanta Falcons

Ed: Continuing with our NFL draft coverage,  we’ve got the Atlanta Falcons’ draft review. Plenty more teams to come, so keep checking back with us.

First off, I’d like to address the fact that most people are stunned the Falcons didn’t get a solid DB with their first pick.

People have lampooned the Falcons for having a weak secondary, and while it could certainly be bolstered with a good shut-down corner, the defensive numbers really weren’t as bad as a lot of people think they were.

Yes, they were 22nd in the league in pass defense. More importantly, they were fifth in the league in points per game on the defensive side of the ball and had 22 interceptions. They got burned, but they were able to hold when it counted, so while they’ll definitely need to work on it this season, it’s not the end of the world.

Sure, the Packers destroyed them in the playoffs, but they also destroyed pretty much everyone else they played, and don’t forget, the Falcons beat them in the regular season. Now on to the picks.

The Julio Jones (first round, sixth overall) trade-up shocked a lot of people, including myself.

The Falcons gave up a lot to get him, but here’s why it may work out in the end: Jones is a phenomenal, physical receiver that makes the offense a lot more prolific than it was before. Having a deep threat receiver pulls the safeties back, which should provide a lot more room for some shorter routes to White and Gonzalez, the go-to guys on third down, and keep the defense from stacking the box to shut down Turner.

Last year, the Falcons ran a system built on short yardage that ate up the clock. Now, they’ll be more of a threat at all three levels of the field. Having Jones should also spread the defense. Double-teaming either guy isn’t going to seem like a great option for many defenses this season and should cause more than a few headaches for opposing defensive coordinators.

Akeem Dent (third round, 91st overall), who I had the pleasure of watching while he played at UGA, is a solid tackler that while not being able to jump in as a starter over Curtis Lofton, should be able to give him some much needed rest and be a reliable backup.

He was a bright spot, along with Justin Houston, on a team that would have finished even lower without his tough work in the middle.

Jacquizz Rodgers out of Oregon State was an interesting pick that I personally really liked. Rodgers is a small, shifty back that should compliment the power running of Turner and Snelling. His role will more than likely be very limited in his first year, however, but that’s to be expected as he won’t have the ability to block the pass rush as well as the other backs.

That extra speed, however, could prove beneficial when up-the-gut running with Turner just isn’t getting it done.

Matt Bosher, punter out of Miami, was taken in the sixth round at the 192nd overall spot. While I haven’t watched a ton of film on him, he led the ACC in average punt yards (44.7) and averaged 65 yards kicking off the tee. I don’t think he’ll be jumping right in over Bryant or Koenen, but he’s got a hell of a leg and should become a solid addition to the special teams units.

The seventh round brought in two players I’m less familiar with. Andrew Jackson, OG from Fresno State (210th overall) and Cliff Matthews (230th overall). With players taken this deep in the draft, knowing exactly how they’ll pan out is difficult.

That said, I love the players South Carolina has been churning out on the defensive side of the ball, so I think Matthews will more than likely have the skills to build himself into a solid DE and hopefully have time to learn the tricks of the trade before starting his first NFL game.

There’s too much speculation to really know how well this will all pan out until the season starts, if of course it even happens. The only player the Falcons drafted for immediate impact was Jones, but when you’re coming off a 13-3 season, it’s probably okay to stick with a lot of the guys that got you there in the first place.

Overall grade: B.

– El Hammerpuncho

Advertisements

NFL Draft Review: Houston Texans

Ed: Welcome back, readers. The NFL draft has come and gone, so we’re going to be doing something a little different on GASB for the next month or so.

Normally when you read NFL draft coverage, you’re reading straight-laced un-biased appraisals of the teams and their players. Not here. Each of our draft reviews will be coming from a fan of a given team, which will give you a chance to get an idea of what that fanbase thinks about the direction the team is headed in and how the new players will fit with that vision.

It won’t be the perspective of a journalist, it will be the perspective of you. The perspective of the fan.

First up, the Houston Texans.

1 (11): JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin

Immediately after this pick talk radio shows around town were full of people calling, furious over the choice go to with Watt over Auburn’s Nick Fairley.

Not only are Fairley’s talents (limited body of work, stockpiling stats against garbage opponents) debatable, but he simply does not fit the most pressing needs of the Houston Texans, who desperately need pass-rushing capabilities.

In Wade Phillips’ 3-4, which will feature multiple looks including 4-3 and hybrids, versatility is vital. Unfortunately, those people calling do not understand that in this system players who can play both DE and DT are just as important as those who play OLB/DE.

Watt will play DE in the 3-4, but can also slide inside to play DT in 4-3 formations and will provide ample pressure on the quarterback as well as support against the run game, and has the strength to tie up blockers for the men behind him.

Additionally, Watt has zero character issues, never gives up on a play and his tangibles are through the roof (please do me a favor and compare them to Fairley’s). Fans of college football will recognize that though the Big 10 (12) is certainly a shell of its former self, the league is still well known for its massive lineman on both sides of the ball. Watt faced these types of players weekly as a Badger and excelled against them.

Hopefully this means that Amobi Okoye’s days are done and fans of this franchise can move on from that debacle.

2 (42): Brooks Reed, OLB/DE, Arizona

As mentioned above, Houston drafted a DE/DT in the first round and in the second round they drafted an OLB/DE. As a result of this combination, the Texans gained two players who can play four positions.

Reed is all over the field and many analysts had him listed as a first-round talent. Reed should complete the Texans’ LB corps in the 3-4 set. He will be largely responsible for pass rush in either set, however. This is likely the best “value” pick of Houston’s entire draft.

Reed is tenacious, a good tackler, and has great game speed. The announcement late last week that Mario Williams will line up as an OLB in the 3-4 makes this pick even smarter.

With Reed and Williams on the outside, Connor Barwin is freed up to provide depth at the OLB position.

3 (60): Brandon Harris, DB, Miami

It could be argued that the Houston Texans’ secondary of 2010-2011 was one of the worst in the history of the NFL.

The youthful group gave up play after big play that cost the Texans big and that need was a priority in this season’s draft. The Texans were in place to draft Prince Amukamara, but passed on him.

That was likely also a good choice.

Harris provides a similar skill set, but in the third round. He runs a 4.4 and has the capability to guard WRs in a man-to-man scheme. Fans of the college game might recall that he occasionally looked out of place and lost at The U. This cannot be blamed solely on Harris.

After all, he played during the Randy Shannon era.

4 (127): Rashard Carmichael, DB, Virginia Tech

As a Texans fan I cannot tell you how happy I was when this selection is made.

It’s not that I think Carmichael is the second coming of Charles Woodson, but it is apparent to me that Wade Phillips is in charge of this draft. That is precisely was this team needs.

The duo of Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith has been below average as talent evaluators. What’s the result of below average talent evaluation? A 6-10 record. The Texans have focused entirely on the defensive side of the ball through the first four rounds, which is exactly what they should be doing.

Carmichael was the best player in a Virginia Tech secondary that was outstanding last season. He’s physical with WRs at the line of scrimmage and is not afraid to tackle. He will likely make a living playing in nickel and dime packages.

5 (144): Shiloh Keo, DB, Idaho

For those asking “damn, does Houston need that many defensive backs?” the answer is a resounding, “YES!”

The Texans apparently love Keo’s playing style. He’s not going to cover anyone man-to-man and it is doubtful he will get significant starting time at any point in his career. But he will be a special teams player and a backup safety.

Wade Phillips is reportedly enamored with his willingness to play the run and take on blockers and believes he has a real chance to be a good NFL player. I’m willing to accept Phillips has forgotten more about football than Mel Kiper, Jr. and I have ever known.


5 (152): T.J. Yates, QB, North Carolina

I have no problem with this pick.

So long as Matt Schaub stays healthy, his job is safe, but that’s not what this pick was about. Though he’s certainly a developmental player, Yates can play and is 6’4”, 225 lbs. The fact that he was able to accomplish anything behind that North Carolina offensive line speaks to his potential.

He has outstanding accuracy, as evidenced by his performance in the Texas vs. the Nation college post-season game (which Texas won by the way). I think the Texans likely chose him in hopes that he develops and they can trade him to a QB-hungry team in a couple of seasons. If they can turn this late fifth round pick into a second round pick, I will be thrilled.

This reminds me of a couple of horror stories I need to share with this blog’s readers. These incidents occurred during the Texans’ Charley Casserly era, a truly miserable era in the franchise’s history.

First of all, in 2003, the Houston Texans drafted Dave Ragone out of Louisville in the third round. That doesn’t sound so terrible if that’s all the information you’re provided. But consider the Texans drafted David Carr No. 1 overall that year. Forget about what a disaster Carr was and just consider this: Casserly used a third overall pick on a player who, if the rest if the draft (specifically the No. 1 overall pick) worked out, would NEVER set foot on the field for the Houston Texans.

I have no issue with a team taking chances like this in the fifth round, but the third?! No wonder Carr was running for his life for so long.

But Ol’ Charley wasn’t done. NO! He had more tricks where that came from! In that same 2003 draft, Casserly picked Drew Henson in the sixth round. This had the potential to be a brilliant pick (largely because it was in the 6th round). Henson had skills that were coveted by many teams and the size (6’4” 240) to back it up, but he was playing baseball at the time.

In 2004, the Dallas Cowboys traded the Texans a third round pick for the rights to Drew Henson, who retired from baseball and joined them that season. So this sounds great, right!? The Texans essentially traded a sixth-round pick for a third-round pick! Well, Charley couldn’t leave well enough alone and he packaged a second-round pick and that third-round pick (that represented Drew Henson, essentially) and sent them to the Oakland Raiders for Phillip Buchanon in 2005.

Yes. Phillip Buchanon.

It was widely reported at that time that no other team had even considered offering Oakland a fourth-rounder for Buchanon’s services. So, apparently Charley Casserly outbid himself and the result was getting the short end of the stick on a trade with Al Davis and the Raiders. That’s how bad he was.

But I haven’t even mentioned the best part! After it was painfully obvious that the Buchanon trade was a disaster, Casserly appeared on a local radio show and, when questioned about the trade he said something to the effect of, “well, we got that third-round pick from the Drew Henson deal, so we shouldn’t have had that in the first place. We look at it as if we gave up only a second-round pick.”

I was livid.

Was Charley saying “if I find $100 on the sidewalk and spend it on a $10 novelty toothbrush it’s ok because, I simply found that money anyway!” What a jackass. I hope Smithiak (or their successors should they go 6-10 again) handles T.J. Yates a little better.

7 (214): Derek Newton, OL, Arkansas State

Obviously, in the seventh round basically every pick is a crapshoot. Newton is 6’5” and could offer depth at right tackle or the interior line. He excels in the run game, which means he might find a home in Houston assisting Arian Foster.

7 (254): Cheta Ozougwu, OLB, Rice

If “Mr. Irrelevant” never sets foot on a NFL field I don’t care.

He is the type of player the Texans should have chosen with the last pick in the draft. He does not project to ever be much of a run-stopper, but he is extremely athletic and is a project with pass-rushing capabilities. As usual, the Texans took no chances regarding character issues. The man went to Rice and by all accounts is as decent of a person as there is.

– No Legs 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl Preview

Nothing is more daunting than a lifetime Bears fan and franchise-long Ravens fan attending the carving up of Super Bowl assignments at GASB headquarters.

In short: which No. 1 hated division rival would you like to analyze and assess more? Thankfully, GASB will always love the game much more than we hate our mortal enemies, so let’s take a hard look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, inarguably one of the greatest franchises in NFL history.

Pittsburgh comes into this game as the only franchise with six previous Super Bowl victories and the only franchise to have won eight AFC Championship Games. This means that in seven prior Super Bowl appearances, the team has only been defeated once.

ROONEY ROYALTY

If it weren’t for loyalties elsewhere, the Pittsburgh Steelers are precisely the type of organization that GASB loves and they certainly run the type of system that other teams around the league should certainly aspire toward both on the field and in the front offices.

Consider that this particular team is still owned and run by the Rooney Family (since 1933) and has tenured a mere THREE head coaches in the modern Super Bowl era.

Rather than take impulsive mulligans or “adapt” to the more corporate Snyder/Jones one-and-done style of modern front office and personal changes, the Steelers get their men and stand by their men.

They consistently build immense teams via the draft and grow their players in a uniquely Steelers system from the ground up. The loyalty pays off: Chuck Noll delivered four rings, Bill Cowher delivered one and Mike Tomlin matched it a mere three years later and is sitting on the doorstep yet again.

One would be hard pressed to find a team with as much talent in the office as on the field, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are unquestionably that team. And as with every Sunday, it will ultimately come down to the men standing on the field executing what they’ve been drilled on since OTA’s and mini camp the preceding summer.

Let’s examine who’s coming charging out of the tunnel.

Quarterback: Love him or hate him, “Big” Ben Roethlisberger is unquestionably in the top three realm of modern quarterbacks.

If we’re talking about one game for all the marbles, Big Ben is right up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. All three have demonstrated what it is to be clutch when it counts the absolute most. What makes the Steelers’ quarterback position so terrifying for Green Bay and Packer fans everywhere in this matchup is that they are facing an especially dangerous Roethlisberger coming out of the story arc that was the 2010 season.

IF THIS MAN DOESN'T LOOK INNOCENT OF ALL RAPE CHARGES I JUST DON'T KNOW WHO DOES

Forced to sit for four games (reduced from six) at the front end of the schedule for particularly a scandalous and alarming pattern of offseason misconduct, Ben was faced with a simple choice: shape up now or suffer the fate of former teammate Santonio Holmes (traded to the Jets after a nightclub incident).

Accordingly, Roethlisberger focused in on the difficult road to redemption before him and made massive strides. He recommitted himself to the game and, upon reinstatement, went out to light it up like a man literally playing for his life.

Roethlisberger 3.0 was an absolute monster during the remaining 2010 regular season and playoffs.

His mental and physical toughness were unparalleled while stacked AFC defenses tried to simply break him in all facets from week to week. They smashed and broke his nose across his face. He stayed in. They nearly snapped his ankle. He put a boot on and ran right back out onto the field.

He threw for over 3,000 yards in 12 games, he lowered his head and picked up first downs and touchdowns at will and, while unquantifiable on a stat sheet, he seemed much wiser in his trademark gambling methodology of navigating the pocket.

Yes, Ben Roethlisberger holds onto the ball longer than any QB in the league. This has not changed. What has changed is that he’s seeing the peripheral landscape better and creating many more offensive opportunities than ever in doing so.

Nobody wants this game more than Big Ben. You could argue that nobody needs this game more than Big Ben.

This is an entirely frightening premise if you’re Dom Capers on the Packers sideline.

Offensive Line: Of note and of great significance: reports have emerged that starting rookie center Maurkice Pouncey will not play in Sunday’s showdown due to an ankle injury suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

He remains listed as “questionable” as of press time. This is a massive blow to the Steelers and will absolutely be a major factor heading in. Pouncey put forth a Pro Bowl effort in 2010 and certainly demonstrated what a modern center in the league CAN be. Doug Legursky has been tapped to step in.

His reward? BJ Raji staring him down from across the line. To quote a legendary canine cartoon, “ZOINKS!”

I JUST LIKE SCOOBY DOO

The good news? The Steelers are absolutely stacked with grizzled and energized veterans on the left and right sides.

Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, and Flozell Adams are household names for a reason. Second-year right guard Ramon Foster is quickly proving himself and earning his keep with the big boys. So while Legursky has his work cut out for him, expect more than a little help from his not-so-little friends.

Anticipate a showdown of epic proportions as the Packers send Cullen Jenkins and Clay Matthews slamming into these Steeler workhorses.

Running Backs: Now in his third season, Rashard Mendenhall has proven yet again that the Steelers know how to draft. Plucked straight from the Big Ten and thrust immediately into the Super Bowl season of 2008, No. 34 was forced to learn the system immediately and be ready when his number was called.

He responded with a 2009 that saw him break 1,000 yards on the ground while stepping into that every-QBs-best-friend role of hovering just outside of the pocket on pass plays for the last option dump off pass. In 2010, he showed improvement across the board — making a case for elite status.

Look for entirely solid and potentially game-breaking plays from Mendenhall under the big lights. Do not count on costly mistakes: Mendenhall only put the ball on the ground twice this season.

BLACK-AND-GOLD BRUISER

Fullback David Johnson will have his work cut out for him alternating between trying to shore up the Pouncey-free line and creating lanes for Mendenhall to bust through.

As he’s proven in the last two seasons, he is ready, willing, and able to do just that when called upon.

Other than that, look for Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman to see some snaps and give Big Ben some options if Matthews and Jenkins manage to get past the O-Line quicker than anticipated.

Tight End: Simply put, Heath Miller is your prototypical AFC North tight end.

Deftly skilled at both blocking and receiving, look for the Steelers to call upon No. 83 in any scenario where the chips are down. His field vision will enable him to pick up and thwart oncoming defenders and, if Charles Woodson plugs up the deep threat, Miller is not afraid to run a route across the middle on any third-down situation.

With a weakened line, Heath will absolutely need to be on point on every down he plays. Count on it. Beyond No. 83, the Steelers could not ask for a better number two guy than Matt Spaeth.

Set your watch to both men executing their assignments with ferocity.

Wide Receivers: Once again, the Steelers prove that they are top-tier genius status when it comes to drafting correctly.

Hines Ward is now in his thirteenth year with the team and is still one of the most explosive and game-breaking receivers in big game situations. He simply grins in the face of opposing defenses as he’s breaking their backs with clutch catch after catch.

WINNIN' RACES, BREAKIN' FACES

Those unfamiliar with the Steelers’ 2010 season might look at the stat line and surmise that No. 86 had a down year. That’s not the case when you factor in Roethlisberger’s newest toy at the No. 2 spot: another draft pick turned gold in second-year man Mike Wallace.

Accounting for over 1,250 yards and 10 TD’s in year two? Welcome to prime time, youngster.

After the monster season Wallace enjoyed, look for him to shine and truly make a name for himself in front of the biggest viewing audience of the year (perhaps all-time).

The Steelers are as balanced as ever at this position and the war chest runs deep receiver-wise. If Hines gets stymied, Monday morning water cooler talk could be all about the rise of the “Young Money Fellas” (more later).

Defensive Line: The Steelers continue to run a 3-4 defense, so look for the 920-pound three-headed dog-from-hell also known as Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Casey Hampton to put constant pressure on the Packers and Rodgers.

Ziggy’s had a bit of a breakout year in only his second year in the league, so definitely keep your eye on him with each snap. It looks like Aaron Smith will not be available for the game, so the Steelers will have to count on Chris Hoke and Nick Eason for support behind the starting three.

GASB expects some major disruptions at the hands of the D line versus the Pack. The timing of these disruptions and how Rodgers adjusts and handles pressure from all sides will be a huge determining factor in this game. Rodgers has seen some exotic blitzes during the course of the season. On Sunday, he will literally see the best the league has to offer.

Linebackers: As we take a peak over the front three, we’re beginning to become a little terrified for Aaron Rodgers and James Starks. Let’s say the Pack pitches a perfect game versus Keisel, Hood, and Hampton. Okay, then what the hell do you do with “LIGHTS OUT. NO SERIOUSLY, LIGHTS OUT” James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, and LeMarr Woodley wanting to decapitate any and every man attempting to advance the football past them?

THIS MAN PAYS MORE MONEY IN FINES THAN YOU WILL EVER MAKE IN A SINGLE YEAR

GASB would prefer to go to any California State Penitentiary wearing nothing but assless chaps for a day than be asked to stave off the homicidal maniacs that comprise the modern day Steel Curtain for even a single down.

Put it down: all four of these men are going to put their mark on this game. There is not an offensive scheme on the planet that can keep these four from feasting at will. They are going to get to you and they are going to make your internal organs scream. The only way to address the linebacking corps of the Steelers is to attempt to keep their big plays manageable within the context of the entire offensive attack.

In this regard, The Packers will need to hone in on a perfectly balanced attack of both the run and the pass, as we now enter into the third and near-inpenatrable component of the Steelers D.

Secondary: With such a formidable front line and linebacking corps, sometimes the only possible solution is to take your chances on the secondary. Not with the Steelers, man.

You know you’re in deep, deep trouble when the STRONG SAFETY for the other team has more national endorsements than your starting franchise quarterback.

Simply put, you can try testing Troy Polamalu, but he’s going to eat your lunch more often than not. It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “how many times?”
How many times are you going to issue a death sentence to your own tight end or receiver by trying to pick up yardage in the middle?

TIP DRILL

How many times is one of those 300-pound giants going to bat a ball up into the air only to see it come down into the hands and fleet-footed blur of hair and black and gold?

And that’s just Polamalu’s impact.
Have you SEEN Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor give interviews lately? Could there be a more cold-blooded, Secret Service-level of assuredness and confidence coming from two men?

GASB thinks not. We’re talking about two men in their athletic primes (nine years in the league for Clark, eight for Taylor) realizing that the window is closing on another ring and wanting absolutely nothing more in present tense. Expect athletic brilliance from both, with Clark making savant-like freelancing decisions and Taylor blanketing all assignments.

If all else fails and Rodgers looks left for intermediate, manageable gains, expect no mercy. Bryant McFadden will be watching. Waiting. Studying. He’s already looked over every tape of every tendency Rodgers has shown in his entire career. He knows how to tackle in the open field (2010 marked a career high 74 solo tackles). He’s absolutely going to get there and, if he sees something he recognizes, it’s going to make for a long day for the men in yellow and green.

Special Teams: This is the one area where the Steelers aren’t exactly as superhuman as the other facets of the game.

Punter Jeremy Kapinos, in spite of being a Penn Stater, hasn’t exactly had the most solid NFL career to date. Four different teams in as many years, and just not many reps. He came over to the Steelers in week eight of the 2010 season and didn’t see consistent action until week fourteen, where he slid into the starter role.

With the exception of a rough game versus the Jets in week fifteen, he’s been “okay” for the Steelers. If SB XLV turns out to be the defensive war it has all the potential to be, field position will be at a premium and Mr. Kapinos will need to back up his Nittany Lion pedigree by putting it back long and in the corner.

Placekicker Shaun Suisham scares the bejeezus out of GASB if this game indeed comes down to defense and field goals. GASB spends a lot of time in the greater Washington, DC metro area, where Suisham was run out of town at the behest of a rather angry pitchfork and torch-wielding mob of Redskins faithful.

While he’s shown decent acumen in his seven-game run this season with the Steelers, history dictates that at some point Shaun Suisham will become Shaun Suisham. For the sake of the biggest game of the year, we sincerely hope it’s not this Sunday.

Finally, in the latter half of the season, the Steelers discovered big-play ability in a young rookie named Antonio Brown. It began with a game-winning dagger of a catch versus GASB’s beloved Ravens and simply did not end there. Accordingly, the Steelers have put 1/3 of the “Young Money Fellas” (the other two being fellow WR’s Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders) back for both kick and punt returns on top of what is quickly becoming his “late-game heroic” status in the offense.

The hope is that his explosiveness and excitement-raising style of play will energize the offense and Terrible Towel-wavers alike heading into each and every series.  We anticipate Brown to deliver at some point, likely when it matters most (think Santonio Holmes in their last SB appearance).

NOPE, STILL NOT LOOKING LIKE A SEXUAL PREDATOR

Side note on Antonio Brown: If you’re looking for a Michael Oher Blind Side-esque backstory to get behind and really pull for for this weekend, GASB highly recommends looking into No. 84’s rise to the NFL. It’s the classic narrative of daunting, oppressively hard times failing to break a human spirit driven to compete at the highest level.

Super Bowl XLV has all of the makings of a game for the ages and this writer wishes a sincerely fantastic and fun-filled viewing experience to everyone in GASB-nation.

– Brent Eyestone

Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Preview

TOKEN PICTURE OF LAMBEAU FIELD

It should come as no surprise to anyone to see the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.

They may not have been the NFC’S trendy pick — that distinction would have gone to the Eagles, Falcons or Saints — but they’ve been a picture of consistency through the entire season and it seems a lot of people failed to notice.

This is as Packers team that did not trail by more than a touchdown all season. A Packers team that did not lose a single game by more than four points all season. A Packers team that barely skipped a beat without franchise signal-caller Aaron Rodgers under center.

Now Green Bay is (relatively) healthy and rolling behind the momentum of three straight road playoff wins.

That said, let’s take a position-by-position look at what Green Bay brings to the Super Bowl table.

Quarterback: Coming off three straight road playoff victories, Rodgers has become a hot commodity and is quickly ascending to ‘elite’ status in the NFL.

His performance in four career playoff games is impeccable; Rodgers has accounted for 13 total touchdowns to just four turnovers. His career QB rating in the playoffs is well over 115. More importantly? His record is 3-1, with the only blemish being an overtime playoff loss to the Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals.

It’s clear Rodgers has learned from that defeat. It’s clear that he’s now a better quarterback. The ball is coming out of his hands quicker than ever, he’s fitting balls into windows that barely even exist and he’s evading the rush and moving fluidly in the pocket.

LOOK AT THAT MUSTACHE. NO, SERIOUSLY, LOOK AT IT.

In short, Rodgers is doing literally every thing you could possibly want a quarterback to do.

Runningback: Here is where the Packers are going to have some issues.

When Ryan Grant went down for the season in week one, he left a massive void at tailback. Ryan was the Packers’ every-down, 1,200-yard, chain-moving back. He was dependable and versatile. In his absence, the Packers have employed a running-back-by-committee approach with Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and upstart James Starks.

The problem is that even combined, the trio doesn’t do what Grant could always be depended on for: getting the yard yardage. Kuhn is serviceable as a short-yardage and goal-line back, Starks has the speed and vision to run off-tackle, and Brandon Jackson has some power up the middle, but none of them have the burst and the drive that Grant has.

None of those backs can tear through a hole on second-and-9 and get into the secondary before being taken down for a 15-yard gain. The big-play ability just isn’t there, and against a swirling Steelers defense with some hard-hitting linebackers, the Packers have little to no chance of running consistently.

Wide receiver: Playmakers abound here for the green-and-gold. While Rodgers surely misses his big tight end in Jermichael Finley, he’s got a wealth of speed and play-making ability and the Packers go four deep with it.

Greg Jennings is the man the Steelers will need to key in on, though much easier said than done. Jennings can hurt a defense in a variety of ways — he’s just as likely to take a quick slant up the middle and to pay dirt as he is to torch a safety over the top. Look for him to be double-covered though much of Sunday’s action.

I PUT THE TEAM ON MY BACK THOUGH

If Jennings is covered, Rodgers will likely turn to cagy veteran Donald Driver. While the 12-year pro can’t boast the speed that he once thrilled with, his hands are as sure as ever and he’s a fixture in third-down situations.

If Rodgers needs eight or nine yards on third down, you can bet he’s looking for Driver on a hook or a curl route.

In the slot will be James Jones. A quick receiver out of San Jose State, Jones knows just how to find seams on drag and post routes that drive defenses crazy. It’ll be up to free safety Ryan Clark to keep one eye on Jones at all times to ensure that those 10 or 15-yard gains don’t turn into 30 or 35-yard gains.

Last is the biggest of Green Bay’s wide receiver corps, the 6’3” 217-pound Jordy Nelson. Nelson really came into form late in the season and his size — coupled with the fact that he’ll likely be matched up on by linebackers or the nickel back — will give Rodgers a large target to throw at should his first couple reads break down. Think of Nelson like a large, sure-handed safety valve.

He could be one of the keys to the Packers’ offense should that Pittsburgh pass rush routinely flush Rodgers from the pocket.

Offensive line: What a difference a year makes. In 2009, the injury plagued Packers line could do nothing to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers off his back. Rodgers was sacked a league-high 50 times in ‘09 — tied with the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger — compared to just 31 times in the 2009 season. A lot of that has to do with the improved health of the line, namely when it comes to left tackle Chad Clifton.

On the other end of the line is big-bodied Brian Baluga, who has fought through some early-season growing pains to really be dependable in the right tackle position.

The line will have its work cut out for it with the complex blitz packages gameplanned by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, so they’ll need to have their best game of the season to give Rodgers the time he needs to find those receivers.

Defensive line: Anchored by former Boston College standout B.J. Raji, who is not-so-quietly having the best season of his young career, this three-man line was part of a unit that was second in the league in sacks during the regular season with 48 and first in the playoffs with 10.

Raji’s ability to command a double team is what opens up the gaps for blitzes from the linebackers, but right end Cullen Jenkins is quite a pass rusher in his own right with seven sacks on the season.

LIKE A BOSS

It’s not just about blitzes, though. Far from it. This Packers front three is plenty capable of stopping the run, especially in the red zone. Green Bay was second in the NFL — behind you guessed it, Pittsburgh — with having allowed just six rushing touchdowns all season.

That staunch red zone defense will have to keep up that level of play this Sunday to force Roethlisberger into poor throws around the end zone.

Linebackers: This is where this Green Bay defense really starts to shine.

When Dom Capers first instituted a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2009, the Packers were a mess. They missed assignments, couldn’t plug gaps, and flat-out couldn’t stop anyone. That’s no longer the case. Led by defensive player of the year runner-up Clay Matthews, this linebackers quartet is as quick, strong and technically sound as any in the league.

It starts in the middle with A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop. The two run-pluggers not only lead the Packers in tackles, but combined for 3.5 sacks and six forced turnovers. When the middle of a defense is versatile enough to stop the run, rush the passer and drop back into coverage, and cover all those bases successfully, it opens up the outside linebackers to wreak havoc.

And that’s exactly what Clay Matthews did this season.

His 13.5 sacks were good for fourth in the NFL, but the opponents’ backfield wasn’t the only place he did his damage. Matthews is fast enough to drop back into coverage and get interceptions. He’s a hard hitter that’s going to force fumbles on players coming across the middle. Matthews needs to be accounted for literally every single time he’s on the field.

Secondary: Had you told me that a Green Bay Packers team without Al Harris or Atari Bigby — who combined for six picks and 13 passes defensed last season — was going to be just as dangerous this year as last year, I’d have laughed at you. And then told you to go watch the WNBA.

 

THIS IS WHERE I'D PUT A CLEVER CAPTION IF I COULD THINK OF ONE

Well, then, it seems that the joke’s on me.

The team might not have forced as many interception’s as last year’s 38, but they clamped down on opposing wide receivers for just about every team they’ve played and the interceptions have come at the biggest possible moments. Tramon Williams has emerged as a premier corner and Nick Collins has quietly been one of the best safeties in the NFC this season.

With all the pressure forced by the Packers’ front seven, it allows the secondary to take more chances breaking on balls, as quarterbacks like Matt Ryan all too quickly to find out.

Kicking: Mason Crosby had a pretty average year in the kicking game, and was only 2-of-4 from beyond 50 yards, but he’s made big kicks for the Packers in the past and coach Mike McCarthy should feel comfortable enough with him in any pressure-kicking situation that may arise.

Tim Masthay is a fairly middle-of-the-road punter; the kind of player that’s not often going to pin a team inside their own five but a player that also isn’t going to net just 13 yards on a kick off the side of his foot. We’ll just say he’s no Matt Dodge.

– Jordan Rogowski

The Great NFL Schedule Debate

March 3.

Save the date.

That’s when the NFL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. And until the NFL Owner’s Union and NFL Players Association can agree on a new one, no NFL football — at least not NFL football with its current players — will be played. It would seem that with billions of dollars and the reputation of the nation’s most popular professional sport on the line, a compromise would be reached rather quickly.

Don’t hold your breath.

At the crux of this complicated issue is the proposed 18-game schedule. With the NFLPA almost uniformly against it, and the NFL’s 32 owners almost uniformly in favor of it, there’s no middle ground for either side to operate in. It’s a matter of incentive; with an 18-game schedule, owners stand to take in tens of millions more in ticket sales, concessions and TV revenue. The players? Just more bodies in injured reserve.

PLAYER SAFETY

Which, if you listen to Roger Goodell speak, would seem to be in stark contrast to his view that player safety in the NFL is paramount. It was just back in October where Goodell send out a league-wide memo and accompanying video outlining what constitutes a legal NFL hit.

Yet, there was the commissioner, pushing for an 18-game schedule in an August interview with the Associated Press:

“We want to do it the right way for everyone, including the players, the fans and the game in general,” Goodell said. “There’s a tremendous amount of momentum for it. We think it’s the right step.”

One has to wonder what Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie thinks about Goodell’s stance. It was Collie whose season ended prematurely after his second concussion of the season after a catch over the middle. One has to wonder what twice-concussed Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers thinks about this push for an extra two games.

After all, these are the players Goodell supposedly wants to protect. These are the players that make the owners and the league money. These are the players that fans pay their hard-earned money to see on Sunday. Are they not the No. 1 priority?

Of course not. The No. 1 priority is always money.

So remember that money on March 3. Not the money Goodell says he’s giving up with a hollow gesture to pay himself just one dollar if there are no NFL contests next year. Not the money that the NFL and two storied franchises stand to make on Super Bowl Sunday. But the money these greedy owners need to put larger LCD TV’s in their luxury boxes and the money they need to upgrade their houses on the Pacific Palisades.

The money that is far more important to the NFL’s owners than the health and well-being of their most valuable commodity.

Their players.

Bills again settle for mediocity

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive my father.

No, not for the manner in which he raised me. He was excellent in that regard, to the point where I could thank him every minute of every day for the rest of his life, and it wouldn’t do the man justice. No, where my father went wrong — horrifically, unforgivably wrong — was raising me as a Buffalo Bills fan.

And I guess it’s not entirely his fault. My father was born in Buffalo and spent over half his life making a living there. I was also born in Buffalo. Loving the Bills is just par for the course.

FAILED THERE

But in the past 15 years, par for the course has turned into one triple-bogey after another.

The latest such triple-bogey is the Bills’ hiring of Chan Gailey as their new head coach. This, more than Wade Philips, Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey and Dick Jauron is a hiring that defies logic. In all former cases, the Bills hiring was due to exemplary performance by an offensive or defensive coordinator (Philips, Williams, Mularkey) or recent success by a head coach (Jauron in his 13-3 season with Chicago).

Gailey, on the other hand, has left a trail of ineptitude at almost every stop in the past 12 years. His lone saving grace was helping Miami’s offense push the team to consecutive 11-5 records in the early 2000’s. A look at his other positions paints a much bleaker picture.

In his two seasons as a head coach in Dallas, Gailey guided the team to the playoffs. In his two seasons as a head coach in Dallas, his Cowboys suffered lopsided losses, and after the second of those — a 27-10 beating at the hands of the Vikings — he was unceremoniously dismissed. His next coaching stop was the NCAA, where his Georgia Tech squads were a picture of mediocrity. Never did Gailey achieve better than a 9-5 record, and his 2-4 record in bowl games doesn’t speak well of his ability to coach players up for the seasons’s most important contests. Combine that with his NFL playoff record, and Gailey is a miserable 2-6.

Buffalo is hedging its bets on 2-6.

FAILED THERE TOO

If that wasn’t bad enough, Gailey’s last job was as offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. In his two-year tenure, Kansas City achieved — and I mean “achieved” as derisively as possible — 2-14 and 4-12 records. Those tie for the two worst records in the history of the Chiefs franchise. And in case you were wondering what the Chiefs ranked offensively in those two years, hold on to your butts. Twenty-fourth in 2008, twenty-fifth in 2009.

Sure sounds like a great hire for a team that has finished in the bottom seven in total offense each of the past six seasons.

And that’s what this hire comes down to; a team that ignores its needs. A team that is content to put out a middling, uninspired product every year.

Fans all across New York are terrified at the prospect of this Bills team moving to Toronto or Los Angeles, and another three (or however many) years of non-winning football will not do anything to quell that fear. Small markets are becoming increasingly unviable as a financial entity, and with Ralph Wilson getting older every year, the pieces are unfortunately in place for the Bills to be the next team stripped from its fan base and sold to a city that won’t give a damn about it.

Winning football changes that. There’s a reason the Green Bay Packers are never talked about as a team that could move cross-country. There’s a reason the New Orleans Saints are never talked about as a team that would be uprooted and shipped to the City of Angels. That reason, in both cases, is winning football.

Without it — as the Bills surely will be until they get a quarterback and a proven coach — the reasons for the team to stay in Buffalo get lesser by the year.

YOU GUESSED IT, FAILED THERE TOO

I’m not sure that Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier or any of the other potential candidates could have turned this Bills team around. The fact is, Bills fans aren’t getting the chance to find out, and that’s what hurts the most. Again, Bills fans are given a coach that doesn’t fit the team and a coach without a winning pedigree and without a past full of successes to lean on.

Thanks for nothing, dad. Thanks for nothing.

– Jordan Rogowski

Rex Ryan: Master of discretion

Sports fans often talk about how they want more personality from their favorite players. From coaches. From owners and general managers. And while that sounds great in theory, in practice, personality can be a pretty ugly thing.

Just ask Rex Ryan.

Actually, don’t ask Rex Ryan. Ask one of the NFL players he’s publicly slandered this year. Ask Miami Dolphins defensive back Will Allen about Ryan. Back in October, Ryan was asked during a conference call with South Florida journalists what he felt about Allen being lost for the season due to injury, and this is how he replied:

“I don’t care about that,” Ryan said. “We lost a Pro Bowl nose tackle and a Pro Bowl running back. So boo hoo hoo.”

As if that wasn’t crass enough, the always-opinionated Ryan offered this:

“No disrespect to Will Allen, but I don’t think he’s going to make a Pro Bowl anytime soon. He’s a decent player, but whatever.”

If not disrespect, what exactly was Ryan going for? Ryan is a lot of things — crass, opinionated and tactless all come to mind — but stupid isn’t one of them. He knew just what he was saying, and he knew there was no respect offered in asserting that an opposing player isn’t good enough to make a Pro Bowl. That he thinks so is one thing, that he would think nothing of saying it to the national media is another entirely.

And Ryan wasn’t done there.

More recently, the outspoken coach appeared perturbed at a recent press conference after learning of Charles Woodson of the Green Bay Packers being selected as NFL Defensive Player of the Year. When asked what he thought of Woodson winning the award, Ryan was, as usual, not at a loss for words:

“A number that I think would be interesting is eight,” said Ryan. “And no that’s not the amount of touchdown passes Green Bay gave up against Arizona.”

Not content to speak ill of  just of individual players, Ryan decided to be more inclusive and take pot-shots at an entire team. The idea, seemingly, was to imply Woodson is less deserving because of the Packers’ defensive performance in last weekend’s Wild Card game. It was as much an implication that had Darrelle Revis donned the green-and-gold, such a performance would not have taken place.

“It is unfortunate that you can’t get a higher individual award than that award,” Ryan added.

If it was just Ryan lobbying for his player, that would be one thing. Admirable, even. There’s not a player in the NFL who wouldn’t love a coach going to bat for him. A coach that speaks at length about his players’ merits and achievements. But that’s not the case with Ryan, and it hasn’t been all season. Rather than engage the media positively, he has opted for cynicism, condescension and disrespect.

Ryan is supposed to be above that level of youthful braggadocio. He’s supposed to be the figurehead of an organization that lets its on-field play do all of the talking.

Instead, Ryan lets his mouth run. It outruns Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. It outruns even the most basic level of prudence.

Ryan better hope he keeps winning, or it’s going to run him straight out of town.

– Jordan Rogowski