This section is dedicated to four of the most recognizable franchises in the NFL. Whether it’s because of past success, recent success or both, all four of these teams have become well known around the NFL. Their success in the past is what might cause some of these teams to be overrated, but this isn’t last year or the last ten years. This is the 2013 NFL season and this season, these four teams look ready to take a step back, some ready to consider a rebuilding effort, others not ready to duplicate last year’s success. So here is Chapter 3, The Big Names with Small Games.
22. Pittsburgh Steelers: Steel Here, but Barely.
Head Coach – Mike Tomlin
The 2008 Super Bowl champs remain entrenched as one of the NFL’s signature teams. Going 53-27 over the last five years with three division titles, a conference championship and a Super Bowl, the Steelers have earned every bit of that praise. However, this year looks to be the backside of those successful years and the first step towards a rebuilding process.
Obviously you have to start with Ben Roethlisberger, as long as he is under center the Steelers can’t be counted out. Roethlisberger lost some of his trademark schoolyard scrambling after an injury forced him to refine his game to take fewer risks. That’s all well and good but that’s what has made Roethlisberger the quarterback he’s been his whole career. Not to mention that just about every time that he has taken a snap for the last five years, he’s been playing with some kind of injury. It’s just a matter of time before the 31 year old breaks down. Roethlisberger morphing into more of a game manager than playmaker would be more believable if the weapons to accommodate that kind of switch surrounded him.
However, his offense is definitely in a transition year with the loss of their leading rusher and receiver. Le’Veon Bell was brought in in the draft to be the #1 tailback but he’s already hit the injured list, and the Steelers recently just cut their leading rusher from last year Jonathan Dwyer. In Bell’s absence the rushing duties will be shared between Isaac Redman who lost the job early last year to Dwyer, LaRod Stephens-Howling who is more effective as a special teamer and recently acquired Felix Jones. Nothing to get excited about, and even when Bell returns it’s no guarantee that he can do the job either. The receiving core is also in transition as they look to replace their best playmaker in Mike Wallace who bolted for Miami this offseason. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be the 1 and 2 options, but they have been guys that have thrived in slot roles and it’s unclear whether or not they can be legitimate go-to guys. Heath Miller is still around which should help Roethlisberger as Miller has been the one mainstay in Pittsburgh his whole career. On the line they have Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey in the middle and David DeCastro which should stabilize the middle but after losing anchor Max Starks, this line finds itself looking for answer like the rest of the offense.
The Pittsburgh defense was quietly the #1 ranked defense in football last year, further exposing the flaws of the offense for a team that was only able to finish 8-8. The famous Steelers defense still has some of the faces that made them feared throughout the league but they also lost some big names and depth. Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are both solid defensive ends in the 3-4 but the defense will struggle to replace five time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. The linebackers still have some familiar faces in Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodely but they will miss former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Looking to replace Harrison with two pass rush specialists, second year linebacker Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones look to fill the void left by Harrison.
The secondary was dealt a huge blow when corner Keenan Lewis unexpectedly signed with the Saints this summer. Lewis had developed into the Steelers best corner and was just entering his prime at age 27. The Steelers like Cortez Allen as a corner but he’s not Lewis, a combination of Allen and veteran Ike Taylor will serve as the team’s #1 corner. If this were three years ago the Steelers would have had the most feared safety tandem in football but time has caught up to the Steelers pair. Ryan Clark has been a very good NFL safety throughout his career, but he is 33 and his skills look to be on the decline. Troy Polamalu was considered to be one of the best players in football just a few short years ago, but he can’t seem to stay healthy. He missed nine games last year and 22 since 2009, barring a vintage Polamalu season; this will be his last one in a Steelers uniform.
IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: The offense is able to find a suitable running back, whether it be Le’Veon Bell or someone else which helps. Big Ben still has a lot left in the tank and manages to carry the passing game despite the lack of a true #1. The defense misses their departed veterans but their replacements come on strong. Specifically Jarvis Jones who was the best pass rusher in NCAA football last year and could be the next in the long line of great Steelers edge rushers.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Ben gets hurt almost immediately but plays through it, despite the fact that it hinders his play. The running game doesn’t really exist adding more pressure to Roethlisberger, which causes the entire offense to be a mess for most of the season. The defense takes a big step back and can’t cover up the imperfections of the offense like they managed to do last year. The Steelers fight with the Browns to stay out of the cellar rather than with the Bengals and Ravens for a division title.
HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The Steelers aren’t finished yet, Ben Roethlisberger will make sure of that barring a major injury. The run game looks very suspect and the backfield will probably be a revolving door all year. Roethlisberger keeps the passing game humming and the offense manages to survive despite the lack of a running game. The defense isn’t as good as it was last year, really missing Casey Hampton, Keenan Lewis and James Harrison but guys like Jarvis Jones and Cortez Allen are able to help. The Steelers aren’t a bad team by any stretch, but they’re probably the least talented Steelers team that Mike Tomlin has ever had. They share a division with the defending Super Bowl champs and a Bengals team that really looks like the real deal this year. Another middling year, avoiding the cellar but not really ever in the conversation for a playoff spot.
Worst Case: 6-10
Best Case: 8-8
21. Minnesota Vikings: Lots to Ponder
Head Coach – Leslie Frazier
The Vikings were one of the biggest stories in the league last year. Obviously Adrian Peterson is the best in the game at any position. Their run to the playoffs on the back of Peterson’s super human season was one of the more unforgettable things we’ve seen in the NFL in quite some time. Peterson isn’t the question mark, everything else is. Without Peterson putting together the best 10-game stretch of any running back ever, the Vikings miss the playoffs and miss them pretty easily. There are some new names on the squad but a similar set of problems. The defense is still just average and below average against the pass, the linebackers look thin and the secondary has to replace its #1 corner from a year ago. Oh, and Christian Ponder is still the quarterback. A legendary performance was able to cover up those holes last year, but can you really count on another transcendent season from Peterson?
It wasn’t that Christian Ponder was bad last season, because he wasn’t bad. He threw for 18 TDs and only 12 INTs but he wasn’t anywhere near good enough to beat defenses that took away Peterson and that remains the problem. Look, AP is going to have another great year, but last year is one of those seasons that happen once in a career. That’s why they’re called career years. Peterson probably runs for another 1,500 yards this year but that’s not the 2,100 he had last year. Is Christian Ponder going to be able to replace that 600 yards? It’s a huge question mark. The Vikings lost their #1 receiver Percy Harvin, but Harvin could hardly be counted on week in and week out so that’s not as big of a loss as it’s looks on paper. They spent big on Greg Jennings to bring him over from the Packers and Jennings has massive boom or bust potential. Jennings has spent his entire career catching passes from two of the best quarterbacks ever (Favre and Rodgers) and this will be the first year of his career where he isn’t receiving passes from a Hall of Famer. We’ve seen what happens when supposedly good receivers leave the comfort of their elite quarterback for another system, the success rate isn’t exactly high. Kyle Rudolph is a good pass catcher at tight end and the offensive line is one of the better ones in the conference. But it’s all on Ponder, that’s the long and short of it.
The defense was average last year, the definition of it actually finishing 16th overall in total defense. The defensive line’s biggest name is Jared Allen who tallied 12 sacks last year to add to his impressive resume but he posted a career low 36 tackles. Kevin Williams remains in the middle as a good run stopper and he should get some help with the addition of rookie Sharif Floyd in the first round. Everson Griffen works as a jack-of-all-trades pass rusher and could be the X-factor in the pass rush. The line is the strength of the unit because the linebacking core and secondary have some pretty big holes. Chad Greenway is the steadying presence but outside of him the Vikings don’t have any linebackers to get excited about, Erin Henderson enters his fourth year and needs to prove that he can be an NFL linebacker and the third slot will be filled by journeyman Marvin Mitchell. The Vikings used their other first round pick on Xavier Rhodes a cornerback from Florida State in the hopes that he could come in and boosts a secondary that lost it’s best cover corner and best overall player in Antoine Winfield. Rhodes isn’t ready to be the #1 guy immediately so he’ll be part of a platoon with Josh Robinson and Chris Cook. Harrison Smith is a pretty good free safety but his partner Jamarca Sanford doesn’t inspire much confidence in a secondary that looks to have taken a step back from the unit that ranked 24th against the pass and 27th in interceptions last year.
IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Adrian Peterson proves he isn’t human and dominates again. Ponder is able to manage the game without making a bunch of mistakes and does his main job well, hand the ball to Peterson. The defense remains average but Peterson is able to keep them off the field for long enough stretches that they can provide some resistance especially in the pass rush.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Ponder takes a step back, Peterson is still great but a far cry from last year. The offense really sputters and never really gets going. The defense starts to show it’s age up front and the young secondary proves it’s not ready and the Vikings get run out of the building a few times this year.
HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The Vikings will win some games on the back of Peterson. Ponder hasn’t really shown anything that would inspire confidence that he can take the next step to be anything better than what he is. Defenses really key on Peterson and he can’t replicate the success of last year so the entire offense really struggles. The defense is aging but their pass rush can’t be ignored, they’ll need to get to the passer a lot to take some pressure off the vulnerable secondary. This is just an average unit. This team played a soft schedule last year and had a running back vault his way into NFL history in the process. Their schedule is tough this year with a stretch from week 6-14 where they will play a playoff contender each week. Neither of those things are going to happen this year, which makes this year look like a big time regression for the Vikes.
Best Case: 7-9
Worst Case: 5-11
20. New Orleans Saints: The Defense is Offensive
Head Coach – Sean Payton
Getting back a Super Bowl winning football coach is obviously a lift to a team that was extremely underwhelming last year. The offense was typical Drew Brees, high powered and high scoring. The real problem with the Saints last year was one that Payton probably couldn’t have been able to fix. The Saints were statistically the worst defense in the history of football last year. Yes. The worst. In history. So yeah, Drew Brees threw for over 5,000 yards again but the defense was the worst in the league in total defense, the worst against the run, 31st against the pass and 31st in points allowed. This team is starting to look more like Dan Marino’s Dolphins, just focused on the eye popping offensive numbers, rather than the Super Bowl winning team from a few years ago.
Drew Brees obviously makes this offense go but he is starting to lose weapons each year, which will eventually hurt his productivity. Marques Colston has been his mainstay and he will remain the #1 option at the receiver position. Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in football and Brees loves to use him. Lance Moore steps in as the #2 WR after the injury to Joe Morgan and departure of long-time Brees deep threat, Devery Henderson. Moore has been best used as a slot receiver making his move to a more primary option concerning. After Moore the receiving core is thin with a combination of inexperienced young guys and ineffective veterans vying for roles in the pass heavy offense.
The Saints have their own kind of twisted sense of stability in the backfield with a committee of three who all have their own roles. Darren Sproles is the best pass catcher out of the backfield and is used primarily as a check down and safety valve receiver, rarely runs the ball. Mark Ingram hasn’t given the Saints what they were expecting when they drafted him. The former Heisman winner has proven to be a plodding back best suited for short yardage situations. Pierre Thomas can do a little bit of both but isn’t as good of pass catcher as Sproles is, nor is he as good in tight spaces as Ingram. All three will see a lot of snaps but the Saints lack any kind of conventional run game. The offensive line has been one of the strengths for this team for a long time, but for the second year in a row one of the Saints All-Pro linemen left via free agency. Last year it was guard Carl Nicks to the Bucs this year it was left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Bears. The lone holdover is Jahri Evans who remains one of the best guards in football. They added Ben Grubbs from Baltimore to go along with Brian de la Puente at center, so the interior of the line looks solid. However, both tackle spots are question marks especially filling the void left by Bushrod. Third year tackle Charles Brown will be tasked with protecting Drew Brees’ blindside in his first year in a starting role.
The defensive rebuilding process is going to take some time, so don’t expect last year’s terrible unit to suddenly morph into this year’s good unit. The defense is still undergoing a complete overhaul and there will be some growing pains this year. Cameron Jordan is the best defensive lineman the Saints have to offer, he excels against the run but needs to improve as a pass rusher because the Saints lack a true #1 rusher.
Curtis Lofton adds some stability at middle linebacker as he is this defense’s best player, who plays next to him is where the questions begin. The other middle linebacker spot will be filled by Jonathan Vilma who could be replaced quickly if he remains as ineffective and injury prone as he has in years past. Will Smith moves from the line to linebacker as he tries to reinvent his career and Martez Wilson could be the dark horse as a pass rusher from the outside. The secondary was boosted by the addition of the aforementioned Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro who was the Saints’ first round pick. Despite the new look, this secondary was terrible last year and if they want to get out of the cellar they need veteran safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins to have big bounce back years, otherwise this unit will be near the bottom of the league again.
IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: Brees has another monster year, making stars out of guys like Nick Toon and Lance Moore. The running back situation remains fluid but all three guys settle into roles that can help the team. The defense’s scheme switch really takes hold early and they get some contributions from newcomers like Keenan Lewis, Martez Wilson and Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints shoot it out with most teams and win some high scoring affairs.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Drew Brees starts showing his age at 34, his protection isn’t nearly as good as it was in years past and his receiving core just isn’t as good as it used to be. The defense is as bad as advertised and they continue to get torched forcing Brees to play from behind almost every game.
HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The offense with Sean Payton back at the helm will still be dangerous despite the attrition at WR and uncertainty at tailback. They win some games and Brees provides 4 or 5 eye popping statistical games. Unfortunately the defense still isn’t where it needs to be and they stay near the bottom of the NFL. The running game struggles all year and despite the passing attack, the Saints spend most of the season looking up at the rest of the NFC South, which has quietly become the best division in football. Left with a lot of questions after the season.
Best Case: 8-8
Worst Case: 6-10
19. Indianapolis Colts: Chuckstrong 2: Upchuck
Head Coach – Chuck Pagano
Wasn’t last year fun? A team that came out of nowhere to support its coach and ride its rookie quarterback all the way to the playoffs. It was like a Hollywood movie. But here’s what happens in Hollywood, once a movie is successful, they decide to make a sequel and the sequel is undoubtedly a letdown (Looking your way Hangover 2.) The pieces don’t fit as well as they did last time, there isn’t the same kind of chemistry and everything just falls flat. Well, prepare for the letdown sequel of a season for the Indianapolis Colts. This team finished 11-5 against a last place schedule that included two games against doormats Jacksonville and Tennessee, and games against Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland and Buffalo. They also had to rely on seven fourth quarter comebacks to cement that 11-5 record, so realistically they could have finished 4-12. The point is that while it was a great story and fun to watch, it was also statistically the luckiest 11-5 season in the history of the NFL.
Offensive coordinator and interim coach from a year ago, Bruce Arians left to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, taking over is former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Hamilton has said that he wants to take some of the pressure off of Luck by implementing a much heavier run based offense. It makes sense on some level, Luck threw the 7th most passes of any quarterback in history last year, and they need to be more balanced. The run first offense is a good idea in theory but a glimpse at the Colts personnel tells a different story. The lead running back will be second year man Vick Ballard who averaged only 3.9 yards a carry last season, along with Donald Brown who shared that average. The Colts brought in Ahmad Bradshaw from New York but after posting 1,000-yard season the Giants were more than happy to let Bradshaw walk, leading to questions about how much he has left in the tank.
The strength of the offense remains with Luck and his receivers. Hopefully this run-first philosophy is just bluster and the offense is given to Luck even more than it was last year. Luck led all quarterbacks in turnovers last year, so he needs to cut down on his interceptions but he has all the makings of a stellar NFL quarterback. Reggie Wayne appears to be the ageless wonder on the outside, with 1,300 yards last season. Wayne is complimented by TY Hilton who burst onto the scene last year and looks to build on a terrific rookie season. The wildcard in the receiving core is Darrius Heyward-Bey who is hoping that a change of scenery can help revive his career. The Colts added tackle Gosder Cherilus to protect Luck along with left tackle Anthony Castonzo, but the interior of the Colts line is a huge question mark.
The dirty little secret about Indy’s great run last year was that they were doing it with a defense that was one of the worst in football. They struggled in almost every facet, not ranking in the top-20 in any significant defensive category. They were very active in the free agent market hoping to plug some of the holes from last year. The defensive line was one of the worst in the NFL last year and they have pretty much the same cast of characters this year. The one addition is defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois from San Francisco, but like I said early, be wary of defensive guys cashing in on career years in San Francisco. The Colts decided it was finally time to let Dwight Freeney walk putting most of the pressure on Robert Mathis to be the primary pass rusher. Mathis is a five time Pro Bowler and no slouch by any means, but this will be the first season that he plays without Freeney. Pat Angerer is the middle linebacker but Angerer is coming off a foot injury that caused him to miss most of last year and he is only average as an NFL linebacker. The Colts are hoping first round pick Bjoern Werner help fill the hole left by Freeney.
The big time addition was in the secondary when the Colts inked Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry who is coming off a career year for the Jets. If he’s healthy Landry is a huge asset in run support and a physical presence at the backend of the defense. The question with Landry has always been his durability. He’s played a full 16 game season in just three of his six NFL seasons. Antoine Bethea is a two time Pro Bowler and will be able to settle at his natural position of free safety with the addition of Landry. The corners are solid also, Vontae Davis has grown into a #1 corner and Greg Toler and Cassius Vaughan provide good support at the other corner spots. The secondary is much improved but this team still looks like it will struggle to get to the passer and to stop the run.
IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT: The Legend of Luck grows, Reggie Wayne stays healthy and effective, the rest of the receivers compliment him and it’s a high-powered machine. The running back situation takes a backseat for a team that knows it’s better served throwing the ball. The defense pulls itself out of the cellar on the back of a very strong secondary that is able to bail out a below average front seven. They contend for the playoffs in a soft AFC.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG: Andrew Luck takes a step backwards as the Colts do try to implement a run heavy offense. The defensive front looks as bad as advertised and teams are able to run at will against them. The offense isn’t what it was last year and the entire season is a letdown.
HOW IT PROBABLY WILL GO: The offense is still effective, despite the promise to run the ball more. It’s more than likely that that plan gets scrapped pretty quickly. Luck continues to develop and cut down on his turnovers but the tougher schedule slows him down considerably. The defense is just not very good and they are going to get beat, even with an improved secondary there doesn’t seem to be anyone that can consistently stop the run or get to the passer. The Colts probably stay in the conversation for the playoffs because the AFC is no good, but this isn’t a playoff team this year.
Best Case: 9-7
Worst Case: 6-10