AFC West: The Keys to Success

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AFC West: The Keys to Success
(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The only division to challenge the NFC West for sucking supremacy would be the AFC West.

Two teams picked in the top seven, and the division winner (San Diego) had to win four in a row at the end of the season just to finish at 8-8. This season, the division features three new coaches (Kansas City, Denver, and Oakland) and plenty of new faces.

 

Oakland—Quarterback Situation

Oakland ranked dead last in the league in passing yards per game last season (148.1). JaMarcus Russell gained a lot of experience starting 15 games, but showed little skill in completing 53.8 percent of his passes.

As a pusher, the Raiders signed Jeff Garcia in the offseason. Garcia, who plans to vie for the starting job, has been battling a calf strain, and Russell admittedly showed up “a little heavy."

The fact that Russell even admitted this was a step in the right direction. His immaturity was noted as soon as he entered the league during his ridiculously long holdout, which lasted into the 2007 regular season. At that point, he was out of shape, out of a starting position, and out of favor with the fans and coaches.

This year, he’s the incumbent starter playing with something to prove. He held out to receive a contract of monstrous proportions, and clearly has not lived up to it yet. With head coach Tom Cable returning to the offensive side of the ball, Russell shouldn’t have a learning curve to face this year.

Also, with a running game that finished 10th overall in 2008 and sixth overall in 2007, Russell should be able to rely on Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden to move the chains as a run-first squad, setting up play-action.

If he can’t, Cable has to cut the ties to the 2007 number one overall pick, and let Garcia play.

Garcia proved last year that he can still play competitively, and Oakland is a win-now kind of town.

It seems like Cable has the graces of the Oakland brass to have at least one honeymoon year, but does he really want to press his luck? Russell needs to succeed quickly, and Garcia needs to start pushing him to improve.

Without a healthy competition, expect Russell to underperform again.

 

San Diego—Running Back Situation

Yes, running back is an important issue for San Diego this year. The defense was paltry last year, but with Shawne Merriman returning, and Larry English impressing, the defense looks to be returning to 2007 form.

LaDanian Tomlinson looks healthy, and Darren Sproles proved he can fill in when necessary. LT wants both in the backfield at the same time. After his worst statistical season in his career, LT is looking to start things back up.

The problem is the size of the backfield. LT is listed at 5′10″, while Sproles is listed at 5′6″. These guys are not bruisers or move-the-pile backs who can consistently run into the line and move the chains.

They both prefer to bounce it outside, or make a catch off of a screen and make defenders miss. It may produce pretty highlight reels, but it does not keep defenses guessing.

Opponents can put in extra DBs or LBs to make up for the fact that the defensive line won’t be seeing much power coming its way. And with LT getting older (he turned 30 in June), his speed is on tap to slow down.

Can Sproles pick up the full load if LT goes down again? Sure, he helped last year as a sparkplug, but when he played teams with decent run defenses, Sproles barely averaged four yards per carry.

Sproles isn’t the same change-of-pace back that Michael Turner was, and won’t be able to provide the same pass protection as LT or Turner. San Diego relied heavily on Philip Rivers and his 105.5 rating last year.

Rivers will definitely put up good numbers, but that kind of efficiency (34 TDs to 11 INTs) is going to be very hard to repeat. They need to be able to spread the load and keep defenses guessing.

 

Denver—Defensive Situation

Thought I was going to join the Denver fans and boo Kyle Orton?

Not yet.

Is Orton on Jay Cutler’s level?

No, but with two solid receivers (Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal), a tight end that can catch (Tony Scheffler) and a head coach who made Matt Cassell a household name (Josh McDaniels), Orton will be able to put up better numbers than he did in Chicago (which isn’t saying much, but it’s something).

Denver’s defense ranked 29th in yards allowed per game last season, and 30th in points allowed. Defense was the sole reason Denver didn’t win the division last year, allowing teams to run for almost 150 yards per game, and throw for another 230 yards per game (and giving up 52 points in the season finale).

Management knew this, and focused the offseason on defensive acquisitions.

Bringing former San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan in as the defensive coordinator was the beginning of a transistion to the 3-4. It won’t happen overnight, or even in one season, but a shakeup was needed and this is a start.

They dropped aging veterans, and brought in S Brian Dawkins (another aging veteran, but incredibly fit), S Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman via free agency to shore up the secondary. DE Robert Ayers and CB Alphonso Smith were drafted on the first day.

Changing the linemen and linebackers to the correct size and skills needed for the 3-4 will probably happen over the season and into next year. For now, look for Denver’s run D to still rank in the bottom half of the league while the personnel changes, but for its pass defense to improve dramatically.

 

Kansas City—Defensive Situation

Kansas City’s defense was horrendous last year, second to only Detroit in terms of yards allowed per game (393).

The offense was in a state of flux without a clear starter at quarterback, and battling injuries all season long. However, with a new GM (Scott Pioli), offensive-minded Head Coach (Todd Haley) and franchise quarterback (Matt Cassell), the offense will be in good hands this year.

If healthy, Larry Johnson and Jamaal Charles can provide a great running game to give Cassell time to throw to his new veteran receivers (Ashley Lelie, Bobby Engram and Amani Toomer).

So, on to the defense.

KC is another team transitioning to the 3-4, so the personnel isn’t a perfect fit. However, with the third overall pick, who KC just signed, Tyson Jackson will be an anchor in the line for the foreseeable future.

However, after drafting Alex Magee in the third round, KC essentially gave up on the Glenn Dorsey project.

Dorsey is too undersized to make the shift to nose tackle, which is a shame for KC, because it’s a wasted number five overall pick. It also places them in a bad position to trade, because whoever covets Dorsey knows that KC can’t use him, which decreases KC’s leverage.

It also could place two rookies on the d-line this year. That’s two out of three linemen—rookies.

Not a good sign for stopping the run against veteran offensive linemen.

Moving to linebackers, KC has to expect some growing pains from its corps, as they plan on moving guys around, assigning them much different tasks than before.

In the 3-4, outside linebackers are expected to rush the passer, and sometimes drop into coverage. As a middle linebacker last year, Derrick Johnson had to man the middle of the field, and provide a second level for run support.

Can he successfully make the switch? Pioli brought in Mike Vrabel to help with that, but only time will tell if KC can improve.

With a tough schedule this year, KC is just hoping to improve on its 2-14 record in 2008.  Once they can draft/acquire more personnel in year two, the success will come.

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