2010-2011 NFL Predictions: Top Eight Units That Need To Step Up
Regardless of how good or bad an NFL team may be, there’s usually one unit on the team that lags behind the rest and needs to pick up their play.
Whether it’s an inexperienced receiving corps or a porous secondary, a unit that is going through growing pains can have an extremely detrimental effect on a team’s success.
This is because an NFL team depends upon every unit to do its part; if one piece of the offense or defense is not contributing, the team finds it that much harder to win.
In this article, I will highlight either one specific unit (offense or defense) that lagged behind its team in 2009 or the weakest unit on a team that is considered a contender in 2010.
With the NFL regular season already underway, here’s a look at some specific NFL units that need to step up their play in 2010:
The Chicago Bears' Wide Receivers
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Among other issues, the 2009 Chicago Bears dealt with an inexperienced receiving corps that lacked a true go-to-guy for newly acquired quarterback Jay Cutler.
In Denver, Cutler had the luxury of playing alongside Brandon Marshall, who is one of the most consistent pass-catchers in the NFL today.
But during the 2009 season, Cutler apparently missed having a guy like Marshall to throw the ball to, as the former Vanderbilt standout threw 26 interceptions in a down year.
Cutler’s wide receivers aren't entirely to blame for his poor performance in 2009, but the corps of Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, and Devin Aromashodu clearly lacked the experience to carry the Bears' passing game.
Heading into the 2010 season, the Bears' receivers seem to be on the upswing. This young unit is a year older, and with Mike Martz taking over as the team’s offensive coordinator, they will have every opportunity to make plays .
Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu in particular look like two young players who should be ready to shine in 2010 now that they’ve developed some chemistry with Cutler and have a full season of NFL experience under their belts.
The New York Jets' Passing Game
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Regardless how you feel about the hype that the Jets have received this offseason, you can't deny the talent they have on defense and the effectiveness of their running game.
What is up for debate is the performance of Mark Sanchez and the Jets' passing game. The second-year quarterback had his share of ups and downs in 2009, but when he began to limit his mistakes toward the end of the season, he brought his team within one half of reaching the Super Bowl.
Thanks to the Jets front office, Sanchez will have help from Santonio Holmes, as well as Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Dustin Keller in his campaign toward a more successful 2010.
It remains to be seen if Sanchez can improve the Jets' passing game in 2010, but he will need to do more to quiet the doubters than he did in Game 1 against the Ravens, when he completed 10 of 21 for just 74 yards.
For the Jets to meet the lofty expectations many have placed on them, Sanchez must not only limit his mistakes but also make a few plays through the air to prevent opposing defenses from simply stacking the box and focusing solely on shutting down the Jets' running game.
The Minnesota Vikings' Offensive Line
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While the Vikings have immense talent on both sides of the ball, their offensive line struggled down the stretch in 2009, allowing opponents to take too many shots at Brett Favre and laboring to open running lanes for Adrian Peterson.
In the last seven games of the 2009 regular season, Peterson failed to break 100 yards rushing in a game and only managed to average more than 3.7 yards per carry once.
These performances, so uncharacteristic of the All-Pro runner, weren’t caused by anything wrong with Peterson; rather, almost every time he touched the ball, Peterson faced penetration into the backfield, leaving him no room to run.
In pass protection, the Vikings line allowed a middling 34 sacks last season, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as Favre took many more hits that don’t show up in the box score.
During the NFC Championship game, Favre was never actually sacked, but an aggressive Saints defense pressured Favre constantly, battering and bruising the 40-year-old quarterback so badly that it was difficult to watch.
In 2010, the Vikings line must open up running lanes for Peterson and keep the ancient Favre out of harm's way if the team has any hope of another deep playoff run.
The Indianapolis Colts' Running Game
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For the past few years, the Colts' aerial attack has been one of the best in the NFL, while the ground game has been virtually nonexistent.
In 2009 the Colts were no different, averaging an NFL-worst 80.9 rushing yards per game and a measly 3.5 yards per carry.
The success of the Colts offense is fairly remarkable considering how one-dimensional their attack has been. Of course, the brilliance of Peyton Manning allows the Colts to consistently outsmart opposing defenses even though they know what’s coming.
The Colts have proven that they can win big in the regular seasons without running the ball very effectively. But even though the NFL has evolved into a pass-happy league, a team still needs some balance on the offensive side of the ball.
Come playoff time, a team with an effective running game can control the time of possession, wear down opposing defenses, and give its own defense some time to rest.
This may be why Indianapolis has only one championship to show for their efforts over the last decade.
Despite a 10-point loss to the Texans in Week 1, the Colts once again look like one of the best teams in the NFL in 2010. But to maintain their success, they will need Joseph Addai and Donald Brown to run the ball more effectively and take some of the pressure off Peyton Manning and the defense.
The Atlanta Falcons' Pass Defense
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Coming off Matt Ryan’s successful rookie season in 2008, the Atlanta Falcons looked like a true contender in the NFC for 2009.
But the team was bitten by the injury bug, as Ryan and running back Michael Turner were both forced to miss time, and the team’s leaky pass defense couldn’t stop opposing offenses from moving the ball downfield with relative ease.
In 2009 the Falcons gave up 242.1 passing yards per game, ranking 28th in the NFL, and when they faced the better quarterbacks in the league, they did little to prevent them from having their way through the air.
In the offseason, the Falcons added a true shutdown corner in Dunta Robinson; he and the Falcons should put up more of a fight against the pass in 2010.
The Falcons hope that a healthy Ryan and Turner along with their other offensive weapons will lead to a playoff appearance in 2010. While this seems like a possibility, their pass defense will need to step up and help the offense out.
The Carolina Panthers' Passing Game
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When you have DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart carrying the ball out of your backfield, it’s safe to say that you will have one of the most feared rushing attacks in all of the NFL.
Unfortunately, you couldn't really say the same about the Panthers passing game in 2009. Jake Delhomme looked more nervous in the pocket than a kid on prom night, while his replacement, Matt Moore, needed time to adjust to the speed of the NFL.
With Delhomme gone to the Browns, Moore hoped to build on his 2009 successes in the season opener against the Giants but didn't fare well, throwing three interceptions and leaving the game with a concussion.
Moore's status is currently day-to-day, and if he's forced to miss any time, the Panthers' passing attack will have some tough-going while Jimmy Clausen gets accustomed to life as an NFL quarterback.
On top of the questionable quarterback play, the only established receiver on the team’s roster is Steve Smith, still one of the better pass-catchers in the league, but after him, there aren’t too many options.
In fact, the Panthers receivers not named Smith have combined for just 46 career NFL receptions and only one touchdown.
So while opposing defenses must respect the Panthers' ground game, they will no doubt dare Moore, Clausen, and a largely unproven group of receivers to beat them for most of the 2010 season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars' Pass Rush
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The Jaguars only registered 14 sacks during the entire 2009 NFL season. Hard to imagine, but it’s true.
To put this incredible "feat" into perspective, Elvis Dumervil led the NFL with 17 sacks, three more than the entire Jaguars defense.
The Jaguars embarrassing lack of a pass rush gave opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to stand in the pocket and calmly pick apart the Jacksonville secondary throughout the season.
When you afford any quarterback so much time in the pocket, it doesn’t matter who you have in your secondary: A team can only hold their coverage for so long before things start to break down.
In 2010, the Jaguars took steps to improve their pass rush, adding Aaron Kampman through free agency and Tyson Alualu through the draft to put more fear into the quarterbacks that they will be facing.
These two moves have already paid dividends: Kampman and Alualu combined for 2.5 of the team's three sacks during Sunday’s 24-17 win over the Broncos.
Of course, one game can't erase last season’s bad performance, but it’s certainly a good start.
The Green Bay Packers' Pass Protection
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One of the most important things an NFL team can do is keep their quarterback safely out of the reach of defensive linemen or linebackers, who would love nothing more than to decapitate a helpless quarterback.
In 2009, Aaron Rodgers was sacked an astonishing 50 times, and while he must shoulder some blame for holding the ball too long, the rest falls on the big guys up front who didn’t do enough to protect one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.
Fortunately for Green Bay and Mr. Rodgers, he managed to stay healthy in 2009 and enjoyed one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the NFL.
Many are predicting another huge year in 2010 for Rodgers and the Packers, who could ride a lethal passing attack and one of the best defenses in the NFL all the way to the Super Bowl.
But before that can happen, the Packers need to protect their young star and ensure that he doesn’t receive another year of punishment like last season.