ESPN's team weaknesses
Even the strongest teams have weaknesses
By Ryan Early
Wednesday, August 27
Updated: August 27
3:27 PM ET
Currently in the NFL, there are no dominant teams. The Bucs won the Super Bowl last year with a mediocre running attack and a below average offensive line. With only so many dollars to go around thanks to the salary cap, teams must choose which parts of their rosters to concentrate on, and leave weaknesses that they hope to hide or just overcome. Here is a list of the top contending teams this season, and the weakest part of their team that might keep them from winning it all.
Buffalo Bills - Safety
The Bills made a major push to upgrade their defense, but they forgot a position. Last year's starters, Coy Wire at strong safety and Pierson Prioleau at free, return to do little more than occupy space on the field. Wire was a rookie starter in '02 and certainly looked like a former linebacker in the way he played the position. He was aggressive, made big hits and overran plays in his zeal to get to the ball. He could develop into a pretty good safety if he learns to play within himself. Prioleau is trying to hold off former Bronco Izell Reese for the starting job, but neither is much to brag about. He has some cover skills but has limited range. Neither one made a single interception last season. The hope is that an improved front seven will allow the safeties to be depended on less this season.
Green Bay Packers - Inside Run Defense
The Packers spent their limited available cap money on retaining key players and had nothing left to fill the few gaping holes on their roster. They ranked 31st in the league in yards allowed per run last year and spent their money on retaining pass rushing linemen Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Cletidus Hunt rather than replacing the immobile and injury prone Gilbert Brown, who will attempt to play the season with a ruptured bicep. Middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson will be replaced by top draft pick Nick Barnett, but he is only a rookie and the team also lost fellow linebacker Nate Wayne in free agency. The hope is that the offense will put enough points on the board early to force opponents to pass to catch up. But with this run defense, keeping the ball on the ground will still put points on the board quickly.
Indianapolis Colts - Secondary
The cover-2 defense is the easiest possible scheme for defensive backs to play. They sit back in zone. They watch the quarterback. The cornerbacks sit on their side of the field and cover a receiver who comes into their area and pass off a receiver going deep to the safety behind him. The safety makes sure no one gets behind him. By constantly having their eyes on the quarterback, defensive backs can play the ball and make plenty of interceptions. At least that's the theory. Somehow the Colts' secondary managed just six interceptions last year. Second-round pick Mike Doss is the lone addition to the unit, and is expected to start at strong safety on opening day. Unfortunately, his strength is playing the run. Nick Harper has improved enough to pass last year's starter David Macklin on the depth chart. He can't do much worse.
Kansas City Chiefs - Cornerback
With the offense leading the league in scoring last year, the team's cornerbacks will see plenty of action as opponents pass to keep up. Eric Warfield is solid on one side, though he will never be confused with Sam Madison. William Bartee is the other starter and gave up far too many big plays last year. All too often he gets himself into good position, then has no idea how to play the ball when it's in the air. Dexter McCleon was brought over from the Rams in free agency as the nickel back, and he is better suited to the man coverage schemes of the Chiefs than the cover-2 zone he had to play last season.
Miami Dolphins - Offensive Line (Left Tackle)
Mark Dixon was forced to move from guard to left tackle, the most important position on the line, last year and played surprisingly well. But he is out of position and then was barely able to get any practice time during training camp because of injuries. Rookie Wade Smith was starting there in preseason games. Jamie Nails had a breakthrough year at left guard after eating his way out of Buffalo. He is coming off Achilles surgery and must keep his weight down to be effective. Center Tim Ruddy is in a fight for his starting job. The Todds, right guard Perry and right tackle Wade, both struggle in pass protection. In light of the problems the Dolphins have along the line, even more respect must be given to line coach Tony Wise and running back Ricky Williams, who led the league in rushing despite having a mediocre line in front of him.
The Pats need Antowain Smith to return to is '01 form.New England Patriots - Running Back
It is rather shocking that New England, the king of the veteran free-agent pick-up, did not bring in someone from outside the roster to challenge for the starting back spot. Instead it has been a two-man battle between Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk, but the most likely result is a committee approach. Smith is the strong, inside runner. Faulk is the darting outside runner and receiver. Together they still don't make up a complete back, but they can make do. Last season, the offense went to a pass-happy philosophy to make up for its lack of a running game. We'll shortly see if Tom Brady's shoulder is up for another 50-throw game.
New Orleans Saints - Cornerback
The Saints don't seem to think this is a problem area. Everyone expected the team to select a cornerback early on draft day. After seeing all the draft commentary, coach Jim Haslett repeatedly went on the air to explain that the team's situation at cornerback was fine and that they had no intentions of drafting a player at the position. It would be interesting to know if he still agrees with that statement. Dale Carter has one starting job all wrapped up, but he hasn't been a full-season starter since the mid-90s. He will turn 34 this season. Thirty-three-year-old Ashley Ambrose was brought in to be the other starter, but he lost his spot in training camp to Fred Thomas. Thomas is limited physically at 5-9, but he is quick enough to cover most receivers. He has problems, though, when he is matched up with the super-tall, possession-type receivers. Thomas, as well as Ambrose, has been injury-prone in recent years.
New York Giants - Right Guard and Right Tackle
On the plus side for the Giants, their offensive line looked like an even bigger weakness at this point last year, but line coach Jim McNally crafted together a unit that played better than the sum of its parts. After right tackle Mike Rosenthal and right guard Jason Whittle left as free agents, it is back to the old drawing board. The current plan is to go with youngsters David Diehl and Ian Allen, who have one season of experience between them. Both are finesse players who will concentrate more on avoiding mistakes than blowing someone off the line. The Giants are very optimistic about their offense, should this one area make do.
Oakland Raiders - Defensive End
The Raiders had to make some tough decisions to get under the salary cap in March and most are surprised they came out of their problems so well. But the one unit that was hit the hardest was the defensive line. Defensive tackle Sam Adams was released and replaced by former 49er Dana Stubblefield. But the big questions marks are outside, where both of last year's starters, Regan Upshaw and Tony Bryant, did not return. Trace Armstrong is still there, but he'll turn 38 this season and has missed a lot of time with injuries the past two years. After him, the old man of the group is Chris Cooper with two years of experience. The Raiders will be hoping someone steps up and provides a desperately needed pass rush. If not, they will have to play a reckless high blitz attack that could result in a lot of big plays.
Philadelphia Eagles - Receiver
Coach Andy Reid employs a passing offense that spreads the field from sideline to sideline, but rarely goes deep. To get it to succeed, he needs smart receivers who can find small openings and run through traffic, but he does not need a guy with blazing speed. That's good because he doesn't have a burner on the roster. The closest thing the Eagles have to a go-to receiver is Todd Pinkston, who recently signed a six-year contract extension. His beanpole physique gives him trouble against physical cornerbacks, plus he has limited stamina and is injury prone. The team certainly has improved depth with Freddie Mitchell finally improving and rookie Billy McMullen showing potential, but neither gives cornerbacks much to worry about. At tight end, Chad Lewis is slowing down and highly touted rookie L.J. Smith isn't there yet.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Running Back
The team's offensive prowess hinges on the legal status of Michael Pittman. He had a disappointing season last year, but then provided the needed running game in the Super Bowl with 124 yards and has had an outstanding training camp. The cloud hanging over the whole situation is an upcoming hearing concerning Pittman's arrest on two felony assault chargers. Police say Pittman rammed his Hummer into his wife's car, which was also carrying their 2-year-old son and 18-year-old babysitter. A trial would force Pittman away from the team, and a guilty sentence would mean jail time and/or a league suspension. But his lawyers' legal maneuverings may get him through the entire season before the trial begins. If so, the Bucs must hope that Pittman isn't distracted by his off-field woes or that Thomas Jones can finally fulfill his potential as a former first-round draft pick.
Tennessee Titans - Wide Receiver
The Titans have been running a dink and dunk passing attack for years, counting on running back Eddie George to maintain the ball, and quarterback Steve McNair to bail them out when they get in trouble. But George's sun is setting while McNair's career is peaking. The team has to put the ball into its quarterbacks hands out of necessity, but who is he going to throw to? Derrick Mason is the clear No. 1 choice, but any defense can take away one receiver. Kevin Dyson was not retained, but he was injured so often his leaving was hardly noticed. Drew Bennett and Justin McCareins were given numerous opportunities to make plays last year but their receptions were few and far between. Rookie Tyrone Calico has speed to burn, but has a lot of work to do. Another problem area for the team is defensive tackle as John Thornton and Henry Ford were lost in free agency and there was very little done to replace them, leaving the team perilously thin at the position.
San Francisco 49ers - Cornerback
The team's pass defense collapsed last year, and it allowed 100 points over the final three games. Injuries demolished the cornerback position, and those left healthy lost all confidence in their ability to cover. A tight cap situation prevented any movement in personnel. Instead, the plan was to start the season with the same cornerback trio that sat atop the depth chart last year in Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster and Mike Rumph. Plummer is an above average corner, but Webster has some limitations, and Rumph looked completely lost his rookie season. The team's best laid plan has already been tossed out as Webster will be out up to eight weeks with a fractured tibia and Rumph has a strained groin, though he is expected to be ready for the opener. Rumph did put in a lot of extra work this offseason, but we won't know until the games start counting whether he's ready to fill the nickel back's role, let alone fill in for Webster as a starter.
St. Louis Rams - Secondary
The cornerback position is in higher demand than any other, yet the team let both Dre' Bly and Dexter McCleon walk in free agency this spring. Aeneas Williams was converted to free safety, where his advancing age won't be as much of a problem. Currently penciled in as starters are third-year player Jerametrius Butler and sophomore Travis Fisher. Fisher was impressive last year when he was forced to start 11 games because of injury, though the Rams' defense doesn't put a lot of responsibilities in coverage on corners. Butler has never started a game, and there are serious questions about his durability and whether he can be physical enough in his play. Back when the Rams won the Super Bowl in '99, they had two veteran cornerbacks in Ryan McNeil and Todd Lyght who could jump on routes and intercepted a lot of balls. Perhaps this year's version can feed off the success of the offense and be more aggressive. Should Kurt Warner and associates struggle, it is doubtful the pass defense can be counted for a quick stop to get the offense back on the field.
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