News  

 

Patriots, Titans among six contenders trying to find their way

It is only fitting that the opening of the NFL regular season coincides with the start of the school year, since the first few weeks of the season often teach us all that we need to know about the league's potential title contenders.

The hopefuls that look so good during the preseason suddenly find themselves exposed when the real games begin. Although only two games are in the books, coaches are working long and hard to remedy the unexpected issues that have led to the slow starts and suddenly cast these contenders into postseason peril.

With fourteen weeks left to engineer a turnaround, let's take a look at six contenders off to slow starts in 2009:

New England (1-1)



What we thought about them heading into the season…

Rankings: Who's No. 1?
How far should Tom Brady and the Patriots fall in the rankings after last week's loss to the Jets? Check out what our experts think, then create your own rankings.  More ...

The return of Tom Brady was supposed to signify the return of the prolific Patriots' offense that terrorized the league in 2007. Though the former league MVP was returning from a season-ending knee injury, his presence was expected to lessen the impact of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' departure.

What we have learned…

The 2009 version of the Patriots' offense lacks the potency of its predecessors despite the return of Brady. The team's offensive line has struggled keeping rushers at bay and the constant barrage of pressure has made Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. While the four-time Pro Bowler has completed 62 percent of his passes, his passer rating is just 76.8 and he has only two touchdown passes with two interceptions. The offensive line woes have also resulted in the team averaging only 78 rushing yards a game, which ranks 26th in the league. Without the threat of a balanced attack, defenses have been able to tighten the screws on the Patriots' one-dimensional attack (they have passed the ball 70 percent of the time through two games) in the red zone and force them to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

The chances the Patriots will fix the problem…

Probable. While the offensive line woes are problematic, it is Brady's ability to shake off the rust that will ultimately decide the unit's fate. The 10-year veteran is still working back into a rhythm and his accuracy will continue to improve as he becomes more comfortable with his rehabilitated knee. Once he finds his groove again, the Patriots will return to their high-scoring waysd.

San Diego (1-1)



What we thought about them heading into the season…

The Chargers were expected to breeze to their fourth straight AFC West title behind a high-powered offense and a suffocating defense. Although questions persisted about LaDainian Tomlinson's ability to remain the team's workhorse, the presence of Darren Sproles was supposed to alleviate the pressure on the veteran to carry the Chargers' rush attack. Defensively, the team was expected to bury foes behind the stellar play of its formidable front seven in Ron Rivera's attacking scheme.

What we have learned…

The offense remains a high-octane unit, but it is the efficient passing of Philip Rivers that fuels the Chargers. The six–year veteran leads the league in passing yards (688) and has connected on a league-leading 11 passes over 20 yards. However, his sizzling start is not enough to overcome a rushing attack that currently ranks 30th in the league (65.0 rush yards per game). While Tomlinson's injury has contributed to the team's rushing woes, the inability to run has led to a one-dimensional attack that repeatedly bogs down in the red zone.

On the defensive side, the Chargers have been unable to stop teams from running between the tackles. The unit is allowing 139 rushing yards a game and surrendering 4.3 yards per carry. With the Chargers' front seven unable to stop teams from running the ball on early downs, Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips have had limited opportunities to get after the passer in long-yardage situations. Consequently, the Chargers' pass rush has only generated two sacks in two games.

Chances the Chargers will fix the problem…

Questionable. Although the Chargers' running woes are a challenge, the biggest obstacle potentially blocking a postseason run is their rush defense. Former Pro Bowl NT Jamal Williams is done for the season and the team is using a revolving door at the position to replace him. San Diego acquired Travis Johnson from the Texans prior to the beginning of the regular season, but he is battling a groin injury and is not likely to return for at least another week. The recent signing of Alphonso Boone was designed to provide depth at the position, but he has never played in a 3-4 and is not a run stuffer of Williams' caliber. As a result, the Chargers are left to bank on a pair of young players, Ogemdi Nwaguo and Vaughn Martin, to shore up the spot. The duo fared well in the second half against the Ravens, but will need to step up their game to help the Chargers survive a schedule heavy with formidable rushing attacks.

Tennessee (0-2)



What we thought about them heading into the season…

After posting the league's best record last year, the Titans were expected to enjoy a long run at the top due to their strong running game and menacing defense. With Chris Johnson and LenDale White receiving help on the outside from WR Nate Washington and TE Jared Cook, both offseason additions, their offense had an explosive look to it during the preseason. Defensively, the Titans were projected to rank among the elite despite the losses of former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and two-time Pro Bowl DT Albert Haynesworth. Led by a talented secondary that boasts two stars in Cortland Finnegan and Michael Griffin, the Titans were expected to blanket opposing passing games with tight coverage and aggressive pressure schemes.

What we have learned…

While the Titans' offense has lived up to expectations, the team's defense has been a disappointment due to leaky play in the secondary. The unit was picked apart by the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger in the season opener, and was bombarded by deep throws from Houston's Matt Schaub last week. The once-vaunted defense ranks dead last against the pass, and has surrendered 10 passing plays over 20 yards. Moreover, the Titans are allowing a whopping 8.8 yards per pass attempt and have given up five passing touchdowns -- the second-most allowed in the league.

Chances the Titans will fix the problem…

Probable. The Titans have perennially ranked as one of the league's best defensive teams under Jeff Fisher and there is no reason to think that they won't rectify their woes. The Titans are undergoing a bit of a transition with Chuck Cecil assuming the play calling duties and they have yet to find their identity as a pressure or coverage unit. The Titans have, however, shown flashes of being a dominant defense as they have collected four sacks in their first two outings and applied fierce pressure on quarterbacks at times. If they can find some consistency in their rush, the Titans' secondary will quickly return to its suffocating ways.

Dallas (1-1)




What we thought about them heading into the season…

The Cowboys were expected to adopt a style-over-substance model that emphasized team success over individual glory. The offense supposedly adopted a "Romo-friendly" approach that was designed to make QB Tony Romo the pivotal playmaker and leader of the unit. Defensively, the star-studded squad was expected to pick up where it left off last season under the direction of Wade Phillips. The defense ascended to the ranks of top 10 near the end of last season and was poised to maintain that elite level in 2009.

What we have learned…

The Cowboys have shown signs of becoming a big-play offense with a stellar rush attack and a potent passing game. While the strategy has played out to perfection in each of the Cowboys' first two games, Romo's penchant for turnovers has undone the team in critical moments. His flop against the Giants has continued to fuel speculation about his readiness to become an elite quarterback and leader. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys have regressed in Phillips' second season as play caller. The unit ranks 30th in total defense and has yet to produce a sack or turnover in two games. In addition, the team is surrendering an average of 27 points per game.

What are the chances of the Cowboys fixing the problem...

Questionable. The Cowboys' offense will remain a potent squad due to the superior talent and potential. Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Jason Witten and Roy Williams have demonstrated the ability break out for big games at a moment's notice. However, Romo remains the key to Dallas' success and his play has to remain at a high level for the Cowboys to maximize their potential. Although the two-time Pro Bowler has been taken to task for his repeated failures in key moments, his production since becoming the team's starter rivals that of the game's elite and points to Romo eventually becoming a top five player at the position. Defensively, the Cowboys' issues are glaring as their cornerback situation remains unsettled and their pass rush is solely dependent on DeMarcus Ware. Unless someone steps up soon, the Cowboys are destined to be an up-and-down unit all season long.

Carolina (0-2)



What we thought about them heading into the season…

The Panthers would challenge for back-to-back division crowns based on their formidable rushing attack and the improved play of former Pro Bowl quarterback Jake Delhomme in 2009. In addition, the defense was expected to experience a revival under new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and his vaunted Tampa-2 scheme.

What we have learned…

The Panthers' rush attack remains a devastating force, but the offense has been underminded by Delhomme's inconsistent play under center. The 11-year pro is the league's co-leader with five interceptions, and his abysmal 45.3 passer rating ranks as the second-lowest mark among starters. With his numerous miscues and turnovers setting opponents up with easy scoring opportunities, the Panthers have been forced to abandon their grind-it-out ways and throw the ball more often than they are accustomed. Additionally, the array of turnovers has allowed opponents to run relentlessly at Carolina's smallish defensive front. Teams have averaged 34.5 rush attempts against the Panthers, which ranks as the third-highest faced in the league.

What are the chances that the Panthers fix the problem…

Improbable. While Delhomme is bound to play better later in the season, the Panthers' schedule is full of stout defenses that will put the onus on the quarterback to win the game. Coach John Fox will attempt to minimize his exposure by relying on DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to carry the load, but eventually Delhomme will have to put the ball in the air and his decision-making has been suspect for most of his career. It is unlikely that he will be able to act as the dutiful game manager that allows the running game and defense to pick up the slack. Furthermore, the defense has been riddled with injuries upfront (Maake Keomatu and Louis Leonard), and is incapable of withstanding the steady barrage of inside runs that opponents are poised to use against the decimated unit. While Meeks' arrival has improved the Panthers' woes against the pass, his scheme has perennially struggled defending the run and it doesn't appear to be any different this year.

Green Bay (1-1)



What we thought about them heading into the season…

The Packers' offense was expected to set the league ablaze after a stellar preseason when defensive coordinators seemingly had no answer for Aaron Rodgers and his talented cast of playmakers. The team's explosive aerial attack was supposed to be buoyed by the return of a healthy Ryan Grant in the running game. The fifth-year pro struggled last season due to a nagging injury, but was being counted on to balance out the Packers' dynamic offense. On defense, the Packers were expected to struggle making the transition to Dom Capers' 3-4 due to various changes in roles and responsibilities by their key players.

What we have learned…

The Packers' offense has lost its mojo from the preseason. The team ranks 28th in total offense and its much heralded passing game is only averaging 186.0 yards per game, which currently ranks 25th in the league. Although Rodgers has been solid during the game's first two weeks (he is completing 56.7 percent of his passes for 445 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions), he has been sacked 10 times in only two games. Without the time to take his customary deep shots from the pocket, Rodgers has been unable to spark the Packers with big plays in the passing game. The inability of the offense to generate "explosives" has prevented the team from taking advantage of an opportunistic defense that has amassed seven turnovers in two weeks.

What are the chances of the Packers fixing the problems…

Probable. The Packers' offense features as much talent as any squad in the league, but has been undone by an offensive line that has struggled during the first two weeks of the season. Whereas Chad Clifton's ankle injury early in the second half forced an overmatched Daryn Colledge to line up at left tackle against the Bengals (Antwan Odom beat Colledge on four of his five sacks against the Packers), there is no such excuse to exonerate the unit from blame in the opener (Chicago sacked Rodgers four times in Week 1). The offensive line has to play together as if it is connected on a string, and the squad has failed to do so in each of its games. While the prevailing theme coming from the Packers' locker room has been better preparation during the week, the return to the quick rhythm passing game that scorched opponents during the preseason is likely the solution to Green Bay's pass protection woes.

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop

NFL News
CONTENT
15