The 2013 Season is rapidly approaching, Training Camps have closed up or are in the process of doing so. Why not take a look at the impending season and the issues that reside within each team of every Division. The AFC East will be the starting point, is it New England’s Division to lose or will this be an entertaining race down the stretch? No one knows at this time, but these issues discussed today will either make or break these teams.
The Bills are currently 2-0 in Pre-Season play, while the Pre-Season isn’t Regular Season it still gives players an opportunity to make a case for their roles on their perspective teams. Training Camps often have intense position battles and players use playing time in Pre-Season games to seperate themselves. One of the most important positions is Quarterback, the Bills have struggled to find “the” guy at that position since the days of Jim Kelly. The 2013 Draft brought ridicule from many pundits once the Bills selected Florida State QB E.J. Manuel with the 16th Pick in the First Round, Manuel was the first QB taken in the draft. Manuel is blessed with a strong arm and deceptive mobility, in today’s NFL having a dual threat QB is a plus. The past options at the position weren’t the answer as the Bills finished 25th in passing yards per game, veteran Kevin Kolb and E.J. Manuel entered training camp to battle for the chance to become the 2013 Starter.
It is imperative that Buffalo gets their passing game in order, they are the proud owners of the sixth best rushing attack in the NFL. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are dynamic playmakers that attract the attention of every opposing defensive coordinator, they too would benefit from a potent passing attack. The only question is who will be at the helm of said attack, Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel? If Pre-Season performance is a variable in that equation, than Mr. Manuel has made a strong case for himself. In both games he’s shown “veteran” poise for a young player, not too mention he seems to “control” the huddle. No matter the decision that is made at QB, the Bills must find a complimentary weapon opposite veteran Stevie Johnson. They drafted receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin this year, both bring different skills to the table. Woods is a bit more polished, the savy route-rouner, and more quick than fast. Goodwin provides elite speed, he’ll be able to take the top off of a defense as well as contribute in the return game. Don’t forget veterans Brad Smith and Marcus Easley; it doesn’t matter “who” steps up, as long as they can develop into a viable option opposite Johnson.
Offense isn’t the only facet of the game in which Buffalo must improve, the defense needs some work as well. The Bills were good at defending the pass, they were atrocious in their attempts to stop the run. Opposing teams averaged 145.8 yards a game on the ground versus Buffalo. The front seven has to get it done, they do a decent job beating blocks to rush the passer. The run game gives them fits, specifically the line backers. While Nose tackle Marcel Dareus had 5.5 sacks last year, he must be better versus the run. In turn, those two inside backers behind him must be ready to come up and make plays. Kiko Alonso and Nigel Bradham are very young, Kiko is a rookie and Nigel is in his second year. Their play will be a very good barometer for how well the Bills do defending the run, they have the ability to get it done, but will they? The other interesting part of the front seven is also at linebacker, Manny Lawson and Mario Williams are playing on the same team for the first time since N.C. State. They worked well together then as Lawson is better against the run and Williams is a better pass rusher, if those two can rekindle their old chemistry the Bills will field an improved line backing corps. The Buffalo secondary is not a conern, they fly under the radar led by underrated Safety Jarius Byrd. If the front seven can raise their level of play to match the back end, the Bills have a chance to be a very good defense.
New England Patriots
There have been many changes in Foxboro since last season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Gone are marquee pieces such as Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, both of their exits for different reasons. The mainstay in all of this is QB Tom Brady, throughout his career he hasn’t been surrounded by the most prestigious wide outs. Outside of having the services of Randy Moss during a record breaking season, Brady has gotten it done with less. It will truly be interesting to see the differences in the Patriot offense this season versus last season, especially due to the changes in personel. Rob Gronkowski will have to get used to life without Hernandez, as Brady will have to get used to the “other” guys in the pass catching department. New England finished top five in passing and top ten in rushing, their offense is not going to be an issue. The question is how they go about getting it done.
Welker’s exit to Denver brought former St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola to New England. Amendola is very similar to Welker, the biggest difference being his durability and speed. He hasn’t been close to as durable as Welker, but he is just as quick and even faster. The issue is and always has been the health of Amendola, when healthy he is a dynamic playmaker. It behooves the Patriots to find other options in the passing game, Second Round Pick Aaron Dobson and Fourth Round Pick Josh Boyce inject youth into the receiving corps. They will both have opportunities to make plays this year along with the veteran receivers on the roster. The player that may have the biggest impact on the passing game is Shane Vareen, Vareen is versatile enough to line up in several different spots on offense. While he is a running back, his top notch speed and soft hands allow him to become a dangerous weapon in the passing game. The duo of Vareen and Stevan Ridley changed the Patriot’s offense last season, in 2011 their leading rusher had 667 yards. Last season, Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns. The high powered Patriot offense will continue to torment opposing defenses as long as Brady is under center and Bellechik is roaming the sidelines.
Defensively the Patriots were stellar against the run last season, they didn’t fare nearly as well against passing attacks. New England finished 29th in the league defending the pass, they gave up 271.4 yards per game. While today’s NFL is truly a “passing” league, most of last year’s top teams had strong rushing attacks (Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco). A good defense is balanced and the New England defense was imbalanced last year. Their has been an infusion of youth on the field for the Patriots over the past two seasons, the growth and development of these young players are key if they wish to improve. New England must close the gap between their rush defense(9th) and their pass defense(29th); if they are able to do that, coupled with that explosive offense, the Patriots can acheive their goal of holding the Lombardi Trophy when it’s all said and done.
The Tannehill era began last year for the Miami Dolphins, obviously every issue wouldn’t be resolved immediately. The Dolphins finished the 2012 season at 7-9, which is a slight improvement from their 2011 record of 6-10. As for the young QB, he had a decent season throwing for 3,294 yards and 12 Touchdowns. The biggest issue with Tannehill were the turnovers, 13 interceptions and nine fumbles. That situation must be rectified this season, they must protect the football. The issue on both sides of the ball lies within the passing game, both offensively and defensively. Miami struggled to pass the football and had even more trouble stopping opposing offenses from passing the ball.
Enter Mike Wallace, the former Pittsburgh Steeler Wideout is looking to give the Dolphins a big play weapon that they’ve sorely lacked. Although Wallace didn’t have a great year last season, amassing 836 receiving yards but his 8 touchdowns would have led the 2012 Dolphins Receiving corps. In both 2010 and 2011 Wallace was one of the league’s best deep threats, averaging 21.0 and 16.6 yards per reception respectively. The Dolphins have the perfect complimentary receivers for a playmaker like Wallace in Brian Hartline and Davone Bess. The passing game should improve this year, but what about the run game? For as much flack as Reggie Bush receives for his prowess or lack there of at the running back position, Bush finished the 2012 season just 14 yards shy of a 1,000 yard season. The pressure is on youngsters Daniel Thomas, Lamar Miller, and Mike Gillisee to at least give the Dolphins what Bush gave them last year if not more. Miami finished 17th in rushing, but it never hurts to improve in that department as well. Tannehill’s development hinges on the pieces around him, Miami is hoping that Wallace’s big play ability opens things up for the rest of the offense. The development of Jonathan Martin ar left tackle will be key for this Miami team, Martin struggled last season but it won’t get any easier. Per Pro Football Focus, Martin placed 76th out of 80 Offensive Tackles in the league. While he can go no where but up, the Dophins need him to improve. If he can hold down his position and keep top notch pass rushers off of Tannehill, it will go along way towards Miami’s passing game improving.
The Dolphins were fairly stout against the run defensively, finishing 13th in the league giving up just 108.4 rushing yards per game. That meant opposing teams often relied on passing the ball against Miami and they not only succeeded in doing so, but thrived. The Dolphins gave up 248.4 passing yards per game last year, good enough for 27th in the league. In an era where teams often spread defenses out and throw the ball early and often, their ineffectiveness against passing attacks hurt them last season. The departures of former starting defensive backs Vontae Davis and Shawn Smith, Davis is with the Colts via a trade last season and Smith joined the Chiefs during the offseason thru Free Agency. The health of Brent Grimes will be a huge deal for the Dolphins this season, this is his first season back from a season ending injury. If Grimes is able to get through the year the Dolphins at least have a veteran corner they can count on, the jury is out on the other defensive backs. It’s not just the back end that deals with the passing game, the onus lies on the guys up front as well. Cameron Wake did his part and some last season, tallying 15 sacks himself. No other defensive player had more than five sacks, the Dolphins hope First Round Pick Dion Jordan will be able to get after the QB as a situational pass rusher. The Dolphins must improve both defensively and offensively in regards to the passing game, they finished second in the Division last season. They are not as far away from truly competing for the Division Title as most think, it’s up to Miami to take the steps necessary to improve.
New York Jets
The Jets are coming off an injury riddled season in which they finished 6-10, injuries weren’t the sole reason. Even with the season ending injury to Darrelle Revis, the Jets passing defense was outstanding last year as they finished second in the league giving up just 189.8 passing yards per game. That was not the case against the run as the struggled mightily slowing down opposing running backs. Offensively, it was the exact opposite as the Jets were able to run the ball fairly well. As for their passing attack, it was virtually nonexistent as they finished 30th in the league with 180.7 yards per game. Similar to Buffalo, the Jets are at a “crossroads” at the Quarterback position. Mark Sanchez is heading into his fifth season, New York just drafted former West Virginia QB Geno Smith in the Second Round. Training Camp has yet to reveal a clear cut leader in the arms race, it will be interesting to see who is at the helm for “Gang Green.”
The Jets have had struggles passing the ball for a few seasons, this is not an issue that just surfaced last year. The injury to Santonio Holmes hurt last year, but that isn’t an excuse for the passing attack as a whole to be that bad. Sanchez had a horrible 2012 season, not only did he struggle completing passes but he has had an issue protecting the ball since his Rookie campaign. While he hasn’t been surrounded by “great” wideouts, their is talent in the Receiving Corps. They may be a bit raw, but Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill have the potential to be big playmakers for the Jets. The Jets also bring back receiver Braylon Edwards, which has to be a good feeling should Sanchez be the starting QB, a feeling of familiarity. Holmes is expected to be back this season as well, that gives the Jets very solid depth at the WR position should they stay healthy. It is up to Sanchez or Smith to not only make the most of these weapons, but protect the ball this year if the Jets wish to improve their horrific passing game. It can’t get worse, can it?
Revis Island has moved South, the Jets are in good hands with Antonio Cromartie as their number one corner. “Cro” had a great season last year, according to Pro Football Focus opposing QB’s had a 69.7 Rating when throwing in his direction. Cromartie surrendered 40 receptions and five Touchdowns in the 87 times he was tested. He also had three interceptions and broke up 12 passes. The Jets addressed their defense with Two First Round Selections, Cornerback Dee Milner and Defensive Tackle Sheldon Richardson. Millner will most likely start opposite “Cro” if healthy, that gives the Jets another big corner on the outside. Richardson will have an opportunity to make an impact as well, he’ll team with Wilkerson and Ellis up front. The onus lines on the Linebacking Corps as far as stopping the run, they have a very good defensive line in New York. Outside of Inside LB David Harris, there is not a proven run stopper in that position group. Pace is a veteran pass rusher, youngsters DeMario Davis and Quinton Copples have a lot of pressure on them this season. Copples spent his Rookie year on the defensive line, his move to LB will certainly be something worth keeping tabs on. The Jets should be able to improve against the run on the defensive end, it lies within discipline. As for the offensive issues, it may truly depend on “who” is the starting QB for the 2013 New York Jets.
Stats were taken from ESPN.com & Pro Football Focus(www.profootballfocus.com)