Every NFL Team's Nightmare Scenario for 2014

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMay 23, 2014

Every NFL Team's Nightmare Scenario for 2014

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    The word "nightmare" has been associated with gentlemen such as Freddy Krueger and Gordon Ramsay, as both are very handy with sharp objects.

    But if an NFL team is to cut it every season, they need their share of talent, good coaching and a little good fortune.

    However, it’s only natural that something will go awry during a season. Here, we will do our best to present a worst-case scenario for each club.

    Perhaps we could make this easy and forecast that every starting quarterback in the league go down for the season, but you won’t even get a hint of that here.

    We are also not going to speculate about specific injuries that have yet to occur at other positions, either. However, if a player is trying to bounce back from a late-season injury that they suffered in 2013, that will certainly be taken into account here.

    Remember, these are NOT predictions. This piece simply features 32 cases of "what if," not "what will be." We can’t stress enough that these are not forecasts. We are suggesting what could go wrong while also assessing what still isn’t right.

    So, lock your doors and windows, and make sure you’re safe.

    However, you can now relax, sit back and enjoy the entire piece.

Arizona Cardinals

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    A big part of the success of the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 can be attributed to their defense.

    But the team’s 7-2 mark following a 3-4 start was also the result of a wake-up call for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. Over his final nine games, the savvy signal-caller threw for 16 scores and just nine interceptions, which was quite a turnaround for a player that threw eight touchdown passes and 13 picks in the first seven games of the season.

    What happens if the Palmer of September and most of October rears his ugly helmet again? With a running game that has still yet to impress to date, this Carson would not be a successful one-man show.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Do the Atlanta Falcons really need another nightmare scenario? Wasn’t 2013 example enough?

    After claiming the NFC’s top seed with a 13-3 mark in 2012, Mike Smith’s team plummeted to four wins this past season and avoided the division basement simply on a tiebreaker.

    Can the Falcons rebound this season and return to contender status? We see it all the time in today’s NFL.

    One of the biggest issues for Atlanta in recent years has been a defensive unit that has struggled to stop the run as well as put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Over the past two seasons, Atlanta has combined for just 65 sacks, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit has ranked 21st and 31st, respectively, versus the run.

    There’s talk of a switch to a base 3-4 base defense this upcoming season due to the free-agent additions of defensive end Tyson Jackson and nose tackle Paul Soliai. That means we could see defensive ends such as Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Osi Umenyiora lining up at outside linebacker.

    If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see how any of those defenders fare in pass coverage. And it is worth nothing that the Falcons used four of their nine picks in this year’s draft on linebacking help, so there is obvious concern about that area of the team. 

    As far as a fatal scenario, it does regard this defense and what exactly it figures to look like. Does the team have the right components to do what it wants to do and more importantly, what needs to get done?

Baltimore Ravens

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    This past season, the Baltimore Ravens didn’t see a lot of the Ray Rice that they knew from 2008-2012.

    They may be seeing even less of the former Pro Bowl running back in 2014 for entirely different reasons.

    ESPN's Chris Mortensen indicated on ESPN’s NFL Insiders this week that Rice is likely to be suspended by the league for his role in an altercation with his then fiancee and now wife back in February. “(Rice) is gonna miss some time," Mortensen said (h/t Jack Jorgensen of FanSided.com). "The Ravens anticipate he’s gonna miss some time.”

    “That’s entirely up to the commissioner. I wouldn’t even speculate on that,” said team president Dick Cass at a recent news conference (h/t Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun). “The commissioner will look at the facts, and listen to Ray, and we’ll be there to support Ray. But it will be up to the commissioner.”

    Even with Rice on the field in 2013, only two teams in the league gained fewer yards on the ground than Baltimore. During its Super Bowl season a year before, John Harbaugh’s club ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing offense.

    Be it Rice, backup Bernard Pierce or rookie Lorenzo Tallaferro, if the Ravens once again fail to run the ball with conviction, it could be another nightmare year for quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw a career-high 22 interceptions in 2013.

Buffalo Bills

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    Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley has orchestrated his share of trades this offseason, adding wide receiver Mike Williams (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and running back Bryce Brown (Philadelphia Eagles) and then moving up in the first round of the draft to grab wideout Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall selection.

    However, what about the other side of the football? Buffalo has ranked in the bottom five of the NFL versus the run in each of the last five seasons (28th in 2013). The team hopes that new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can help. After all, the Detroit Lions (Schwartz's most recent employer and the team's head coach from 2009-13) were sixth in the league in rushing defense this past season.

    However, what happens if new middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and the rest of a restructured linebacking corps are not up to the task? All that newly-acquired offensive talent may wind up pretty well-rested.

Carolina Panthers

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    Only the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks gave up fewer total yards and fewer points than the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers this past season.

    However, even fewer points are associated with the Carolina offense. The Panthers totaled 366 points in 2013, the least among the 12 teams who made the playoffs. Ron Rivera’s club ranked just 26th in total offense, and only three clubs in the league gained fewer yards through the air.

    At a recent charity event, Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer noted that Pro Bowl signal-caller Cam Newton was looking pretty healthy, which is good news following his recent ankle surgery.

    “I can’t wait to get started.” said Newton. “I’ve got to get this ankle back 100 percent. It’s a day-to-day process and it’s going along well. I’m feeling great.”

    But how is the rest of the offense doing? This season, the unit will feature a whole new wide receiving corps, a new left tackle and a running game that ranked a so-so 11th in the league in 2013. A big part of that ground game is Newton, but what if the three-year pro just isn’t his same spry self, at least early into the season, and the club gets off to another sluggish start?

Chicago Bears

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    For any number of reasonsand there were plenty of themthe Chicago Bears fielded one of the worst defensive units in the league this past season.

    Mel Tucker’s unit allowed the third-most yards in the league, and no team in the NFL was easier to run on. Over their last 10 games alone, Bears defenders allowed an astounding 197.1 rushing yards per game.

    To counteract this shortcoming, as well as the fact that Chicago tied for last in the league with 31 sacks, the team added free-agent help in defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Idonije (his second stint with the club) this offseason. They also signed safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings.

    The Bears also re-signed cornerback Charles Tillman, entering his 12th season, to a one-year contract. He was a rookie second-round draft choice in 2003, and in the third round that same year, Chicago selected outside linebacker Lance Briggs. Both players are coming off injury-shortened campaigns.

    Both Briggs and Tillman, standout players for this team for more than a decade, are also capable of showing their age in 2014.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Starting quarterback Andy Dalton, who will be entering his fourth season, has led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs in each season he’s been in the NFL. After securing a wild-card berth in 2011 and 2012, the team captured the AFC North title this past season.

    But Dalton and Co. have yet to break a long-standing tradition of not winning a playoff game, which dates back to the 1990 season, when Dalton was just three years old.

    Still, Marvin Lewis’ Bengals are a balanced team with surprising depth. However, they also have an erratic quarterback who is entering the final season of his rookie contract.

    How up and down was Dalton in 2013? Including the playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, the young signal-caller threw 27 touchdown passes and committed only a dozen turnovers in 11 wins. In six losses, however, Dalton committed twice as many miscues (14 turnovers) as touchdown passes thrown (seven).

    Will 2014 prove to be a nightmare or simply a case of deja vu for the quarterback and his club?

Cleveland Browns

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    Let’s not overlook the obvious.

    Picture the Cleveland Browns offense in 2013. Despite the presence of the NFL leader in receiving yards in Pro Bowl wideout Josh Gordon, the team averaged less than 20 points per contest last season.

    Now, picture the Browns’ attack minus Gordon, who totaled a league-high 1,646 yards on just 87 receptions for a gaudy 18.9 yards per grab—all of which he did in just 14 games.

    The reality is that the talented performer could be facing some sort of suspension for a second straight year for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. In 2013, he missed the first two games of the season for a similar violation.

    We can make up as many scenarios as we would like, and the Browns did recently signed veteran wideouts Miles Austin and Earl Bennett. But let's face it, this may already be the franchise’s biggest nightmare, and only time will tell how long it will last.



Dallas Cowboys

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    8-8. 8-8. 8-8.

    Buehler? Buehler? Buehler?

    We all know the plight of the Dallas Cowboys the last three seasons. With a chance to win the NFC East in the final game of each of the past three regular seasons, Jason Garrett’s club has come up short.

    As you may have heard, most of this has been the fault of quarterback Tony Romo. In fact, some will insist that even though he missed the 2013 season finale with a back injury, the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was still his doing.

    It’s worth noting that over the course of the past three years, Romo has thrown 25 touchdown passes and committed 10 turnovers in the final four weeks of the season, a total of 11 games. The Cowboys are 4-8 in the final four games in each of the last three seasons, and they have allowed 28.1 points per game in those contests.

    For this franchise, the sleepless nights are continuous. It’s called the stretch run. And until Jones, Garrett, Romo and the latest defensive coordinator can figure out how to close the deal, call the Cowboys a recurring late-season nightmare. No need to create another frustrating scenario.


Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos scored an NFL record 606 points during the regular season in 2013, but they scored just eight points in their resounding 35-point setback to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.

    General manager John Elway did his best to address a shaky defense this offseason with the additions of defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward. Unfortunately, the latter has made news this week for an alleged incident of assault, according to Brian Maass of CBS4 in Denver.

    One of the other changes in the Mile High City this offseason was the free-agent departure of productive running back Knowshon Moreno, who is coming off a career year. Into the breach comes second-year pro Montee Ball, who didn’t live up to his name early last season when he developed a slight case of fumbleitis.

    Ball is now expected to be the main man in the backfield, and the Broncos hope to play the kind of offense that keeps opposing quarterbacks off the field. Remember last season’s playoff run when the Broncos held the ball for 38-plus minutes in wins over the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots?

    Ball is perfectly suited to grind it out against teams. But will that grinding include hanging onto the football consistently? An undependable ground game would make for a lot of sleepless nights for veteran quarterback Peyton Manning.

Detroit Lions

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    For the most part, the one thing new Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell has gotten used to doing during his somewhat-brief NFL career is reaching the postseason.

    Dating back to 2001, his lone season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the quiet sideline leader has been on the staff of both the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens. Over those 13 years, he’s been to the playoffs 11 times, reached three Super Bowls and won a pair of championship rings.

    Since 2001, the Lions have enjoyed one winning season and made one playoff appearance. Enough said.

    So can anything be worse than what we have seen from this franchise over the last decade or so?

    In 2011, the Lions were 5-0, the franchise’s best start since 1956, but then dropped six of their final 11 games and a playoff contest as well.

    A year later, the club split its first eight games and then proceeded to lose out, finishing 4-12.

    This past season, Detroit was 6-3 and appeared in control of the NFC North before losing six of their final seven games and committing a mind-numbing 21 turnovers over that span.

    So what’s the nightmare scenario for this club in 2014? Getting to the midway point with a losing record may be devastating for Caldwell and Co. if recent history is any indication. And a repeat of those 34 turnovers from the 2013 season won’t help either.

Green Bay Packers

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    Now would be a good time.

    In 2012, the Green Bay Packers used their first six picks in the NFL draft to bolster a defensive unit that allowed the most passing yards in a single season in NFL history the year before.

    Two years into those six players' respective careers, the group has combined for 17 sacks and seven interceptions. This past season, Green Bay finished 25th in total defense, 25th versus the run and 24th against the pass. One season earlier, the Packers were just 17th in rushing defense, and they were abused on the ground in the playoffs by the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers.

    This past season, Mike McCarthy’s club managed to win the NFC North despite using four different starting quarterbacks.

    There has been the infusion of young bodies via the draft and some positive flashes from defensive end Mike Neal and cornerback Casey Hayward (when healthy). However, the Packers had better hope that the third year proves to be the charm for players like outside linebacker Nick Perry and defensive end Jerel Worthy, who have been disappointments so far for a number of reasons.

Houston Texans

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    They are starting anew in Houston, as the Texans will be looking to rebound from a 2-14 season and snap a 14-game losing streak when the team takes the field in September.

    Former Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster also hopes to bounce back from a disappointing year. The workhorse runner missed the final eight games of 2013 but is looking forward to being a part of Bill O’Brien’s offense in 2014.

    “So far I really love it,” said Foster to Mark Berman of MyFoxHouston.com. “It's very versatile.”

    But what if Foster isn’t able to rebound with a full season in 2014? The Texans will have a new starting quarterback this upcoming season, and the luxury of handing the ball off continuously to Foster would be a luxury the Houston quarterbacks didn’t have in 2013.

    Perhaps a return to form by Foster would bring some smiles to wide receiver Andre Johnson, whom NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reports may or may not be attending the club’s upcoming minicamp.

Indianapolis Colts

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    The Indianapolis Colts selected just five players in the 2014 draft, including zero in the first round.

    This year’s first-round pick was used last September to acquire running back Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns.

    It’s safe to say that the move hasn’t lived up to the Colts’ expectations to date. But 2014 is a new year, and the third overall selection in the 2012 draft may be ready to surprise us all. The cupboard isn’t bare behind Richardson, either, as Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw hope to stay a lot healthier this upcoming season.

    During quarterback Andrew Luck’s first season in 2012, Indianapolis ranked 22nd in rushing. This past season, the team was tied for 20th in the league in the same category.

    With any luck, the Colts’ signal-caller will get some assistance from the remainder of the backfield. But Luck won’t be living up to his nom de guerre if he doesn’t get a little support from Richardson and Co. once again.


Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Will 2014 be the year of this cat?

    Over the past two seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have combined to total 51 sacks. In 2012, they got to the opposing quarterback 20 times, a bit less than NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt (20.5 sacks) was able to by himself that season. In 2013, the club totaled just 31 sacks, which tied for last in the league.

    Keep in mind that this past season alone, the Carolina Panthers (60), Buffalo Bills (57) and St. Louis Rams (53) all managed more sacks than the Jaguars have over the past two years combined.

    The team signed former Seattle Seahawks players Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, whom head coach Gus Bradley is quite familiar with, and it also added Ziggy Hood. Jason Babin returns this season, too, and he led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2013.

    Over the past two seasons, the Jaguars have ranked in the league’s bottom six in terms of total yards allowed. Another nightmarish performance by an ineffective pass rush would add up to another dismal season.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Will the real defensive unit of the Kansas City Chiefs please stand up—or, at the very least, tackle someone?

    A year ago, Andy Reid’s team got off to a 9-0 start and allowed a mere 111 points through those first nine games. Including the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, in which the team squandered a 28-point third-quarter lead, Kansas City gave up 239 points during a 2-6 finish.

    Which defensive unit will we see in 2014? There will be come changes with the free-agent departures of starters such as defensive end Tyson Jackson, inside linebacker Akeem Jordan and free safety Kendrick Lewis. In some instances, though, this could be addition by subtraction.

    Still, if the Kansas City defense performs as it did down the stretch last year, the nightmare will actually be ongoing for Reid and his perplexing club.

Miami Dolphins

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    Cue the 60 Minutes jokes.

    The Dolphins didn’t necessarily get what they bargained when they signed free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace last offseason, and we are not necessarily talking about money.

    Known as one of the league’s best big-play wide receivers and certainly one of the fastest, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout enjoyed a huge season in both 2010 and 2011, the latter campaign resulting in a Pro Bowl invitation.

    It was thought that perhaps the allure of a future big contract was a distraction for Wallace in 2012. He suffered through a disappointing season that year, averaging a then-career low 13.1 yards per catch with the Steelers.

    That was until 2013, when Wallace totaled 73 receptions but managed only 12.7 yards per grab and caught a career-low five touchdown passes for Miami.

    Granted, when your starting quarterback is being pummeled on a weekly basisRyan Tannehill was sacked an NFL-high 58 times in 2013it’s hard to get the football.

    What may be harder to believe is that the Dolphins can endure another disappointing season from one of the most prized possessions of last year’s free-agent class.

Minnesota Vikings

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    You have often heard that the less-than-magical number in regards to NFL running backs is 30…as in years old.

    The truth of the matter is that it is not the age that matters, but the wear and tear. Would you rather have a 2000 BMW with 50,000 miles on it or a 2012 Mercedes with 120,000 miles on the odometer?

    In seven NFL seasons, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has rolled up 10,115 yards rushing and 86 touchdowns on 2,033 carries. He’s also caught 206 passes for 1,697 yards and five scores.

    That’s 2,239 touches from scrimmage in 103 regular-season games.

    With Toby Gerhart now in Jacksonville, Matt Asiata and rookie Jerick McKinnon are now the top reserves behind Peterson.

    We are not suggesting that the six-time Pro Bowler is slowing down by any stretch of the imagination. But we also know that, at any time, those carries and touches can catch up with the best of running backs. And Peterson is certainly one of the best ever.

New England Patriots

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    Last season, the New England Patriots had the makings of a very respectable defensive unit until key injuries at various positions derailed Bill Belichick’s team.

    Still, the club reached the AFC title game for the third straight year despite being ranked 26th in the NFL in yards allowed and 30th in the league versus the run.

    Midseason injuries struck the defensive tackle spot, namely veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Their absence made it easy for opponents to exploit the Pats on the ground.

    The 10-year veteran defenders both return to open their second decade in the NFL. But what if Wilfork and Kelly are unable to perform as in years past, especially with both being a year older? New England drafted defensive lineman Dominique Easley in the first round this month. Will he need to be an immediate difference-maker?


New Orleans Saints

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    As it turns out, the New Orleans Saints are apparently very content with Tim Lelito snapping the ball to quarterback Drew Brees on a weekly basis.

    Rather than draft a center this year or sign veteran free agents such as Jonathan Goodwin or David Baas, Sean Payton and Co. are hoping that the former undrafted free agent is up to the task.

    For the past three seasons, Brees had Brian de la Puente as his center, with the three-year pro starting 46 of a possible 48 regular-season contests. However, the talented pivot signed with the Chicago Bears this offseason.

    The Saints added wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round of the draft. Brees still has the franchise’s all-time receptions leader in Marques Colston, and that Jimmy Graham guy should be around this season as well. Good things are also expected from second-year wideout Kenny Stills, and underrated running back Pierre Thomas remains in the backfield.

    Of course, the ability to get the ball to all of those performers depends on Lelito consistently getting the ball to Brees.

    Oh, snap.

New York Giants

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    Because of their recent success, it’s often forgotten that the New York Giants have had their struggles as well.

    Surrounding that win in Super Bowl XLVI is the fact that Tom Coughlin’s team missed the playoffs in each of the two seasons before that championship victory and have not reached the postseason in each of the last two years, either.

    And while the Giants led the NFL with 44 turnovers this past season, don’t think for a moment that it was a rare occurrence for Coughlin and his club. Just three years earlier in 2010, Big Blue led the league with 42 turnovers.

    Of course, 29 of last season’s 44 miscues came via quarterback Eli Manning, who still has wideout Victor Cruz and young receiver Rueben Randle. However, he needs to break in a rookie wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. this year. The Giants also have huge question marks at tight end, and the offensive line is in flux.

    Manning and Co. suffered through a nightmare season in 2013 when it came to those turnovers. Are they capable of some more bad dreams this upcoming year?

New York Jets

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    Yep, they did it again.

    In the first round of the NFL draft two weeks ago, the New York Jets opted for University of Louisville safety Calvin Pryor. Dating back to 2010, the franchise has drafted six players in the first round, and all of them have been on the defensive side of the ball.

    To be fair, the team also added receiving help for second-year quarterback Geno Smith in the form of tight end Jace Amaro in the second round and a pair of fourth-round wideouts in Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans.

    Of course, Smith is not the only quarterback on the roster with starter’s experience. No one needs reminding that veteran Michael Vick was added via free agency this offseason.

    The nightmare would not come if either Vick or Smith winds up the regular quarterback; the disaster would come if Ryan opts to play ping pong with his football players.

Oakland Raiders

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    Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Oakland Raiders have revamped the majority of their defense with veteran free agents this offseason.

    Such was the case a year ago when general manager Reggie McKenzie brought in a slew of new starters and signed most of them to one-year contracts. This offseason, the star-studded list includes defensive linemen Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith as well as cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.

    In 2013, the Raiders were 22nd in the NFL in total defense. They allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the league, and only three teams surrendered more points.

    Led by 14-year veteran defender Charles Woodson, one of the few veteran defenders who will return in 2014, the Raiders are determined to prove that youth doesn’t have to be served. Of course, the team does have a pair of young linebackers in second-year pro Sio Moore and rookie Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick in May’s draft.

    Despite those additions, what happens if this Oakland defense shows its age sooner rather than later?

Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Philadelphia Eagles won seven of their final eight games last season to wipe out a 3-5 start.

    What they couldn’t erase was the play of a defensive unit that hopes to be much better under Bill Davis, the team’s defensive coordinator for a second straight year.

    On paper, the Eagles run defense improved from 23rd in 2012 to 10th this past season. On the field, its performance was inconsistent. Those shortcomings were revealed in the team's playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, who marched into Philadelphia in the Wild Card Round and left the city of Philadelphia with 185 yards rushing on 36 carries.

    The team added a pass-rushing threat this offseason in first-round pick Marcus Smith, and second-year nose tackle Bennie Logan figures to make strides with another year of experience.

    The Eagles have the potential to lead the NFL in scoring in 2014. But if their defensive unit can’t get off the field in a timely fashion, they may not get the opportunity to show off Chip Kelly’s attack.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    While the Pittsburgh Steelers were busy doing their recent impression of the Dallas Cowboys by finishing 8-8 for a second straight year, No. 84 was busy enjoying a banner year.

    Wide receiver Antonio Brown finished second in the NFL in both receptions (110) and receiving yards (1,499), and he has emerged as one of the game’s top home-run threats. But Pittsburgh’s second-leading pass-catcher of a year ago, wideout Emmanuel Sanders, is now a member of the Denver Broncos.

    So who will be Brown’s playmate in 2014? Is second-year pro Markus Wheaton ready to take over for Sanders? Could fourth-round draft choice Martavis Bryant be in the mix for the job? What about free-agent additions Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey?

    Without someone to draw defenses away from Brown, it could be a long year for the Pro Bowl performer as well as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the Steel City.

St. Louis Rams

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    The offensive line of the St. Louis Rams has a new piece to the puzzle in highly regarded offensive tackle Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in the draft.

    However, let’s not forget about a one-time first overall selection in the draft. Last offseason, the Rams gave tackle Jake Long big bucks to protect the blind side of young quarterback Sam Bradford, yet another former first overall pick.

    Unfortunately, neither Bradford nor Long remained unscathed, and neither finished the season healthy. Their health going forward will be paramount to the team making a run at a playoff appearance, something that has eluded the franchise for just about a decade.

    A lot of attention has gone to the health of the team’s starting quarterback, but imagine if Long is unable to return to form. It will be Bradford and/or another Rams quarterback that will be seeing pass-rushers in their dreams.

San Diego Chargers

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    In 2013, the San Diego Chargers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and quarterback Philip Rivers was a big reason for that. Of course, he was also part of the reason the team went through a three-year postseason drought.

    Including their 2013 playoff split with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos, the 10-year pro committed a mere 13 turnovers in 18 contests. In 32 games from 2011-2012, Rivers was to blame for 47 of the club’s 54 turnovers.

    New head coach Mike McCoy and then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt helped turn the quarterback’s fortunes around in 2013, and he earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

    Will all be as good with Whisenhunt now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans? It certainly won’t be a fun time for McCoy if Rivers reverts back to his 2011 and 2012 form.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Last month, we heard that San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman was well on his way to a successful recovery following the devastating injury he suffered in January’s NFC’s title game.

    Having the Pro Bowl defender back on the field as soon as possible is the goal for the Niners and head coach Jim Harbaugh.

    But what if Bowman is not only unable to regain his star form this season but somehow winds up not suiting up at all in 2014? How big of a setback would that be for a club that has been to three straight conference championship games?

    Let’s hope that Harbaugh and Co. won’t have to answer that question.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Over the last six seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been extremely balanced on the defensive side of the football.

    Over their last 96 games, the team has totaled 168 sacks and allowed 164 touchdown passes. Tampa defenders have allowed exactly 30 scores through the air in each of the past three seasons.

    That’s bad symmetry for a pass rush and a secondary that hopes to be much better under new head coach Lovie Smith and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

    Speaking of new, there were also the free-agent additions of cornerback Alterraun Verner and defensive end Michael Johnson this offseason.

    It’s the latter that’s the focus here. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the Bucs with nine sacks in 2013. Johnson totaled 3.5 sacks this past season after amassing 11.5 sacks the previous season. While Johnson had a more complete year as a defender in 2013, it’s his ability to get to the opposing quarterback that most interested the Buccaneers.

    What if Johnson’s 2012 performance indeed proves to be the exception rather than the rule?

Seattle Seahawks

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    Is there still plenty of tread left on the tires of Marshawn Lynch?

    Just ask running backs coach Sherman Smith.

    “Marshawn is a special athlete,” said Smith to Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com. “I’m not going to take him for granted and I don’t think anyone in this building takes him for granted. He’s special. He’s different.  And the other guys know that Marshawn is the guy.”

    “To me, there's a drop off (behind Lynch),” Smith reiterated to Farnsworth roughly one week before the draft. “You take Marshawn out of the game, there's a drop off to the next guy. So why would we do that?”

    The Seahawks have some talented reserves in Robert Turbin and Christine Michael, but it’s obvious who the main man in the backfield is. In 59 regular-season games with Seattle, Lynch has already logged 1,066 carries for 4,624 yards and 41 touchdowns. He has also added another 124 attempts for 599 yards and seven scores in seven postseason games with the club.

    In seven years with the Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, Lynch is approaching 2,000 career touches from scrimmage. So what does Pete Carroll do if there is any real sign of slippage in 2014?

Tennessee Titans

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    The arrival of new head coach Ken Whisenhunt should mean extremely good things for the Tennessee Titans and their running game.

    Hopefully, it will mean extremely good things for the franchise, which hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008.

    That year, the team made running back Chris Johnson their first-round pick. He was released this offseason after six productive years, although the last few campaigns just weren’t what the doctor ordered.

    That means former free-agent pickup Shonn Greene will be the main man in the backfield this year. Or will he? Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean reports that the former New York Jets runner had knee surgery recently.

    What does that mean for Whisenhunt’s ground attack, which did add rookie running back Bishop Sankey in the draft? And what if  Dexter McCluster doesn’t pan out with more carries than receptions in 2014? Can Jackie Battle and veteran Leon Washington help?

    Those are a lot of questions to answer. But riddle us this: Would Whisenhunt and Mike McCoy have been able to get San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers back on track without Ryan Mathews and the ground game in 2013?

Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins defense has been hard to figure out at times, especially when it comes to the secondary.

    In 2012, a pass rush that was missing outside linebacker Brian Orakpo for the vast majority of the season was one reason defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s unit gave up 31 touchdown passes. This past season, with Orakpo (10 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker Ryann Kerrigan (8.5 sacks) combining for more than half of the team’s 36 sacks, it was somewhat of a surprise that the ‘Skins still allowed 29 scores through the air.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) there were not a lot of positives regarding the 2013 performances of cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson. At safety, Brandon Meriweather is joined by free-agent pickup Ryan Clark. Neither of these players performed at a high level this past season, either.

    Besides Amerson, will any youth be served in the Washington secondary in 2014? There has to be drastic improvement here or the Redskins face the risk of a second straight 0-6 nightmarish mark versus their NFC East brethren.