NFL Preview: Scouting The Title ContendersAli Sarfaraz
The NFL lockout was lifted just in time for training camp, saving what could have been a lost season. The NFL season is set to begin on September 8, when the last two defending Super Bowl Champions – the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers – square off at Lambeau Field. A lot happened during the offseason, with many teams making drastic improvements. Now, as we leave the offseason behind and prepare for the real deal, here are the teams to look out for in 2011:
New England Patriots - The mad genius Bill Belichick is at it again. This off-season he gave quarterback Tom Brady another weapon to throw to in Chad Ocho Cinco. The former Bengals receiver now has a chance to play for one of the top teams in the league. The only concern is if he can do things the “Patriot way”.
On the other side of the ball, the team beefed up its defensive line by trading for Albert Haynesworth and acquiring Andre Carter. If all goes according to plan, New England will wreak havoc on opposing QB’s.
New York Jets - It’s a new season with the same goal: win a Super Bowl. In his tenure with the Jets, head coach Rex Ryan has always had high expectations for his team. So far they have been close, but no cigar. The team did a nice job retaining the core players who made them what they were last year.
After losing out on the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes, the Jets quickly retained CB Antonio Cromartie. The duo of Darrelle Revis and Cromarite will certainly give opposing quarterbacks fits this season.
The team also agreed to terms with receiver Santonio Holmes, who made big plays through out last year’s regular season. In addition, Plaxico Burress returns to New York, but this time with gang green. He will provide young quarterback Mark Sanchez with a new big target to throw to in the end zone.
San Diego Chargers - Despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Philip Rivers, the team missed out on the playoffs last year primarily because of their slow start. The team gets Vincent Jackson back after his holdout for most of last season, so the offense should improve with his contributions. Tight end Antonio Gates, Rivers’ favorite red zone target, is fully healthy this too.
The biggest question for the Chargers will be their defense. They have had trouble creating turnovers in the secondary in past years, and this is something that must get better for them to succeed.
Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles were the run away free agency winners of the off-season, hands down. The team drastically improved on all phases of their defense. Seriously lacking depth at the corner back position, the Eagles traded quarterback Kevin Kolb for young cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Soon after, the team stole Nnamdi Asomugha from under the noses of other potential. And just like, Philadelphia was stacked with arguably the deepest cornerback group in the league.
The team also added depth at the defensive line by adding pro-bowl defensive end Jason Babin, who had 16.5 sacks last year.
As if their potent offense needed any help, they added former Giants wide receiver Steve Smith, a former pro-bowler who pulled in over 100 receptions just a few seasons ago. Former Dolphins back Ronnie Brown joined on as well. Expect both of those players to contribute to this already prolific offense.
Green Bay Packers - Think about this: the Packers won the Super Bowl last year with six of their starters on the injury reserve.
This year, those starters return, most notably tight end Jermichael Finley, who was primed for a big season last year catching passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The defense has stayed intact for most part. Clay Matthews and B.J Raji will continue to bring pressure to opposing quarterbacks, and the ball hawking secondary anchored by Charles Woodson will continue to create turnovers.
Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons went 13-3 last year but lost terribly in a playoff shoot out against the eventual super bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
To improve their offense, the Falcons drafted rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, who brings a strong combination of size and speed. The 6’3” Jones has had a nice pre-season and received high praise from his coaches. Expect him to be an immediate impact player from week one. The Falcons have a very balanced attack and running back Michael Turner should continue to be a workhorse in the running game.
New Orleans Saints – It was a quiet off-season for the former defending champs, but an effective as well. Although the team sent running back Reggie Bush packing, they drafted running back and Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram from Alabama, while also signing running back Darren Sproles to help carry the load in the backfield.
Quarterback Drew Brees is coming off an excellent 2010 campaign throwing for over 4,000 yards in this offense. Expect to see more of the same from him in 2011. With Brees throwing his way, receiver Robert Meachem also seems poised to have a breakout year in 2011.
Pittsburgh Steelers - For the most part, the Steleers return a solid core on defense. Linebacker Lamar Woodley agreed to an extension recently, providing depth at the position. And James Harrison, notorious for his rough play on the field, will continue to take players out by any means necessary. He just needs to set some money aside for the fines coming in throughout the year. As usual, safety Troy Polamalu will be a force in the secondary.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has many targets this year. Receiver Mike Wallace is progressing well, as is Antonio Brown, who has enjoyed a great pre-season.