Our 2013 NFL Preview continues, the Division up for discussion is none other than the NFC East. The 2012 Season brought many changes for the NFC East as there was a definitive shift in power that few saw coming. All of which makes this year’s battle for the Division crown even more intriguing.
The Injury Bug was a frequent visitor to the Cowboys last season, however that was not the only issue for their .500 finish. Dallas finished at 8-8, good enough for third place in the division but not good enough to obtain a Wild Card Spot in the Playoffs. The Dallas offense was extremely one sided, if they weren’t throwing the ball, the ball wasn’t moving. The Cowboys finished second to last in running the ball last season, placing 31st in the league by generating a paltry 79.1 yards per game. Their anemic rushing attack allowed teams to key in on their explosive passing attack, Dallas finished Third in the league in that department. Tony Romo was the facilitator of a passing attack that averaged 295.6 yards per game, the negative was that everyone knew what was coming. Romo is often on the wrong end of many Quarterback driven jokes, while he isn’t in the upper echelon of Quarterbacks, he’s far from an average QB. In their one dimensional offense, Romo 4,903 yards with 28 Touchdowns and 19 Interceptions. While pundits and fans alike key in on the turnovers Romo committed, keep in mind the pressure he was under to produce without any semblance of a run game. For the Cowboys to step up and compete for the division or even make the playoffs, changes must be made on that side of the ball and the QB isn’t one of them.
The injuries to DeMarco Murray truly hurt the Cowboys last year, that being said, the play of the offensive line has to improve. They were decent on passing plays, giving Romo ample time to drop back and go through his progressions. The Offensive line struggled a bit to open holes for the Running Backs just as the Running Backs struggled to get to the second level. Only one of the four Cowboy running backs averaged more than four yards a carry, Murray averaged 4.1 per carry. The Cowboys had an opportunity to address the Offensive line in this year’s NFL Draft, they were initially supposed to draft in the late “teens”, they traded down to the 31st pick and selected Center Travis Frederick. While Frederick does indeed fill a need on the interior of the Offensive line, it is fair to wonder if the Cowboys would have been better off selecting a tackle to play opposite Tyron Smith. Free was one of the worst starting tackles in all of football last year per Pro Football Focus, Free ranked 66 out of 80. The bottom line is the Cowboys won’t be going anywhere if the offensive line doesn’t get better fast, only a few teams in the league can get away without having a decent running game and Dallas isn’t one of them. All eyes will be on new play caller Bill Callahan, he’s taking those responsibilities away from Head Coach Jason Garret, Callahan believes in the need of a strong run game and that should pay off for Dallas. A productive rushing attack will go along way in limiting Romo’s turnovers, it also gives Dallas a balanced attack offensively. Not to mention that a strong running game can only open things up for playmakers Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. Witten continued his high level of play he’s displayed throughout his career, Bryant really took a step forward last season. Dez caught 92 passes for 1,382 yards and scored 12 Touchdowns, if he can build upon last year’s production, he will give Romo another trusted target.
The Dallas Defense is not exempt from blame in last year’s .500 finish at all, they must raise their level of play as well. The Cowboys had trouble stopping opposing offense’s rushing and passing attacks, which only put more pressure on their one dimensional offense to score. This year’s defense will look completely different than the 2012 version, not only because of injuries but scheme. Dallas has switched to a 4-3 base defense from last year’s 3-4 alignment. According to Pro Football Focus, Dallas had two of the best Outside Linebackers in the 3-4 scheme in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Spencer(1st) and Ware(9th) will now move down a level and play defensive end, while they haven’t played the position in the NFL, both were former defensive end’s in college. Jay Ratliff has to be ecstatic that both Spencer and Ware are now on the defensive line with him, their presence will make it easier for him to get one-on-one match ups, giving him a chance to be more disruptive. The Linebacking corp will be in great hands with Sean Lee holding the middle down with Bruce Carter and Justin Durant flanking him. Once again that brings the attention to the back end of the defense, the Cowboys acquired Brandon Carr and drafted Morris Claiborne last season. Carr is a proven veteran and Claiborne will be in his second season, it’s the safety position that is in question. As the last line of the defense, it’s never good when they can’t be trusted. The new alignment will mean nothing if Dallas can’t limit opposing team’s big plays, which in turn will affect their chances of winning the Division.
New York Giants
The New York Football Giants do not miss the Playoffs often, last year they were on the outside looking in. The Giants finished the 2012 Regular Season at 9-7, they are currently 1-1 in Pre-Season Play. New York had a very balanced offensive attack last season, finishing 12th(239.1) in passing yards per game and 14th(116.4) in rushing yards per game. Consistency was an issue for the Giants last season, they played as if they had a switch and could just turn it off and on when they weren’t in a position to do so. Their effort on the defensive end last year was nothing short of atrocious, the Giants struggled to defend both the run and pass attacks from opposing teams. They were equally bad at defending them both; placing 28th against the pass by giving up 254.3 yards per game and 25th against the run, as opposing teams averaged 129.1 rushing yards per game. The Giants are known for having a strong defensive line and solid back end, neither of those two groups held their own last season. The Linebacking Corps is always a work in progress for the Giants; in short, their defense needs to at least show a pulse this season if they wish to get back in the Playoffs or at least win the Division. In a Division full of offensive fire power, the Giants can ill-afford the defensive performances they displayed last season.
Gone is veteran running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who carried the ball 221 times last season for 1,015 yards and Six Touchdowns. The Giants are moving forward with youngsters Andre Brown and David Wilson, both of whom averaged more yards a carry than Bradshaw(4.6) at 5.3 and 5.0 respectively. The pair also combined to score 12 Touchdowns last season, they get a great opportunity this year to step up and make plays for the Giants. While neither Brown or Wilson is the between-the-tackles type runner Bradshaw was, both have the ability to make big plays, especially Wilson. Their most important job will be staying in the backfield to protect Quarterback Eli Manning on passing downs. Manning had a decent season last year passing for 3,948 yards with 26 Touchdowns and 15 Interceptions. Health at the Receiver position was an issue for New York, Hakeem Nicks was in and out of the line up while rarely being healthy, Victor Cruz earned every penny of his new contract extension by his performance last year. The Giants drafted Rueben Randle last season, Randle figures to play an important role in the offense this year. While it’s an extremely small sample size, Randle was able make plays downfield on the few opportunities that he had(15.7 yards per catch). His ability to make plays will only add to their passing attack and give the Giants a great backup option should Cruz or Nicks go down for an extended period of time.
The good news for the Giants in regards to their defense, there’s no where to go but up. Their fierce pass rush lost some of it’s bite last season as Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for just 10.5 sacks. In 2011, the pair combined for 21.5 sacks. Osi Yumenyiora is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons, the veteran pass rusher’s absence may be felt this season as he tallied six sacks last year. The Giants addressed their Defensive line with their second and third round selections in this year’s NFL Draft by selecting Jonathan Hankins and Damontre Moore. New York’s added depth will go along way in getting this defense back on the right track. The Giants have also compiled an interesting group at Linebacker, they have to figure out what’s the best combination for this team to succeed between Paysinger, Connor, Williams,Herzlich, Rivers and Curry? If there was ever a year for the Giants to get the middle of their defense together, this is it. The backend of the defense is filled with playmakers in Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown and Corey Webster. 2011 Draft Pick Prince Amukamara will be given the opportunity to lock down receivers opposite Webster, in a Division with explosive playmakers the Giants will be expecting a lot from the young corner. The issue will be the same on both sides of the ball, as a team can the Giants achieve a level of consistency? If the Giants are able to get after the passer and generate turnovers they will once again be playing in the Post Season; if not, they’ll be in this same situation next year trying to figure out what went wrong.
The City of Brotherly Love is anxious to see what First year Head Coach Chip Kelly has in store for them this season. Kelly the former Head Coach at Oregon is the latest collegiate coach to make the jump to the pros. Oregon was known for running an extremely high tempo offense, many pundits and fans have speculated as to what the Philadelphia offense will look like. The preseason has not shed a ton of light on what their offense will look like, but that hasn’t dimmed the excitement on what the 2013 Season may hold for the Eagles. No one in the organization is looking back, as there isn’t much to reflect on. Philadelphia was horrible last year, they finished with a 4-12 record and struggled to keep their Quarterback upright. Due to their inability to protect their QB, both Michael Vick and Nick Foles played last season. Vick struggled last year, much of the blame goes to the Offensive line that couldn’t keep the pocket “clean” at all. When things were decent, Vick was hardly in a good rhythm to deliver the ball. Foles was hardly better, they headed into Training Camp competing with Rookie Matt Barkley for the right to be the starting QB.
While the offense is still somewhat of a mystery, the pieces are not. Philadelphia will have the same players in the backfield, specifically Vick and LeSean McCoy. Vick has won the starting job, Kelly confirmed so just last week. McCoy has been one of the most explosive running backs in the league since his Rookie Campaign, it will be interesting to see how he will be utilized in Kelly’s scheme. One player that will not be occupying the position they held last season is Jeremy Maclin, he tore his ACL in Training camp which leaves the Eagles very thin in that department. Speedster DeSean Jackson have a new partner lined up opposite him this season, most likely Riley Cooper. Cooper has made headlines this year off the field, but he Eagles are looking for him to make plays on the field this year. Reliable veteran receiver Jason Avant remains in the fold, look for him to play a bigger role this season due to the thin Receiving Corps. As mentioned earlier, the Eagles offensive line play was an eye sore last season, they addressed that during the draft with the Fourth Overall pick. Philadelphia selected tackle Lane Johnson to come in and protect Vick’s blindside at Right Tackle. The play of the offensive line is just as important as the health of Vick and McCoy, no matter the offensive scheme if the line can’t hold up the Eagles offense won’t be very productive regardless of the tempo.
The Eagles were a Top Ten in the league defending the pass, they ranked Ninth to be specific as they gave up just 216.9 passing yards per game. They were at the other end of the spectrum when defending the run, they gave up 126.3 yards per game which put them at 23rd. The most important position in a 3-4 defense is the man lining up over the center, the Eagles addressed that need by signing former 49er Nose Tackle Issac Sopoaga. That means moving Fletcher Cox over to Defensive End after he played DT last year as a rookie. Cox was one of the better defensive tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus, Cox ranked 18th out of 85 tackles. Cox playing end means a move for former DE Trent Cole, Trent had just three sacks last season. It will be interesting to see how well he transitions to rushing the passer from the outside linebacker position, opposite him will be Connor Barwin who played in a 3-4 defense in Houston. There have been drastic changes on the backend of the defense, Nate Allen has a new partner in Patrick Chung back at Safety. The cornerbacks will be Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, and Super Bowl Champion Cary Williams. While most teams struggle in their first year in a 3-4 alignment, the Eagles have a good chance to transition smoothly due to the influx of veterans who have played in the system before. Philadelphia has a good chance to climb out of the cellar of this division if Kelly’s offense can work in this league, that may be the barometer for the Eagles this season. Their defense has a chance to improve upon last year’s bunch, the offense is what is in question in Philadelphia.
The reigning NFC East Champions are looking to build on last season’s success, the “RG III” era in Washington has gotten off to a great start. Robert Griffin the Third took D.C. and the NFL by storm in his Rookie Season, prior to selecting Griffin in the 2012 Draft the Redskins finished the 2011 season at 5-11. In just one year they went from last to first, their Rookie backfield of Griffin and Alfred Morris worked wonders for their offense. The Redskins were the best rushing team in all of football last season, they averaged 169.3 yards per game. Morris finished 2012 as the Second leading rusher in the league with 1,613 yards and 13 Touchdowns. Washington had the fourth highest scoring offense in the league with 27.3 points per game. The Redskins, like every other team in the NFC East lost key players on the defensive side of the ball. While it hurt their pass rush mightily, they were very stout against the run which heavily factored into their 10-6 record. Washington fell short to Seattle in the Playoffs, Griffin was taken out of the game due to an ACL injury. Similar to Adrian Peterson, Griffin has worked like crazy to be ready to go Week 1. The health of their Franchise QB plays a large part in how far Washington goes this season, many wonder what would have happened versus Seattle had he not gotten hurt. The Redskins must improve on both sides of the ball if they wish to advance past the First Round of the Playoffs, health issues withstanding.
The read-option gave many defenses problems last year, Washington’s version was far more complex than it looked. It involved a lot of ball handling for Griffin, he and Morris did a wonderful job staying on the same page when they executed those plays. While the rushing attack made the headlines, “RG III” had a very good year throwing the football, Griffin finished with 3,200 yards with 20 Touchdowns and Five Interceptions. The passing game must catch up to the outstanding run game for Washington to take that next step forward offensively. Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan played injured for much of the year; Santana Moss was reliable as always, but they need the younger Receivers in Hankerson and Robinson to step up and become viable options for Griffin. Fred Davis is back from an injury as well, if they can stay healthy the Redskins have the weapons to become an even more explosive offense. It will be interesting to see the growth and development of Griffin as a passer, which is the next step in the evolution of this offense.
The Washington defense has to improve against the pass, they finished 30th in the league by giving up 281.9 yards per game. Due to key injuries in the front seven, the Redskins truly struggled to generate any semblance of a pass rush. The outside linebacker duo of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will be back this season, they last played a full season together in 2011. That season they combined for 19 sacks and 78 hurries, the pair tormented passers every chance they got. Orakpo got hurt last season which left Kerrigan to fend for himself, he didn’t do too bad by tallying 8.5 sacks last season. When healthy, Washington has one of the best pass rushing duos in the league in Orakpo and Kerrigan, they must be excited to have them both heading into Week 1. The Redskin defensive line gets a boost this season by acquiring tackle Barry Cofield and the return of end Jarvis Jenkins. Iron Man London Fletcher will be in his usual spot at inside linebacker, Fletcher will be paired with Perry Riley. The front seven isn’t the area of concern, Washington’s backend must step their play up this season. Brandon Meriweather hopes to start the season at one of the safety spots, Meriweather was acquired last season but struggled with injuries. Washington went out and addressed the secondary in the draft, they drafted a corner back and two safeties. David Amerson will get a chance to make an impact in his rookie season as will safety Bacarri Rambo, Rambo may get a chance to land the starting job opposite Meriweather. Both additions are a welcome sight to a secondary that was a bit thin last season, their play will be a great barometer for how the Redskins do this season. Teams will have their difficulties running the ball against that front seven, the question is if Washington makes it just as difficult for opposing teams to pass the ball. If the Redskins can shore up their pass defense, they have a chance to not only have one of the better offenses in the NFL, but one of the better defenses as well.
Stats taken from ESPN.com and ProFootballFocus.com