Detroit Lions 2014-2015 Season Preview

By: Prad

NFC North Rank: 3rd

Projected Record: 8-8

After losing six of the final seven games last season, the Lions unsurprisingly missed the playoffs. The NFC North is easily one of the more competitive divisions in the league, so the Lions already face an uphill challenge each year. And some questionable play calling from their head coach did not help either. Jim Schwartz, who was blamed for the team’s dismal record, was fired at the beginning of the offseason. In five seasons of work, Schwartz managed just one winning season, so the decision was an easy one for the organization. Detroit made some moves this offseason in an attempt to better compete in the North. In recent history, the Lions have had one of the more talented rosters in the NFL, but have not been able to break through late in the regular season and in the playoffs.

The offense has proven to be incredibly talented in the last few years. With QB Matthew Stafford at the helm, it looks like this team has set their quarterback option for the next decade. Yet, some Lions fans are beginning to believe that is not in fact true. Most of last season’s late turmoil can be attributed to the questionable quarterback play of Stafford. During the fateful seven game stretch at the end of the season, he tossed a whopping 12 interceptions. Stafford completed the lowest percentage of his passes (58.5%) among the 10 quarterbacks who threw for the most attempts. Still, he has shown flashes of brilliance in his five years in the league. His big arm coupled with a talented receiving corps makes the passing game a constant threat for opposing defenses each week.

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The group of receivers on this team improves the overall impact of the offense each year. Obviously, one receiver stands out from the pack. WR Calvin Johnson is a once in a generational talent. His blend of physicality and ability is unparalleled in the league today. The Stafford-Johnson tandem is regarded as one of the best if not the best in the NFL. Johnson averaged 101 receptions, 1,712 yards, and 11 touchdowns over the last three seasons. He even broke the record for receiving yards (1,964) in a single season a couple years ago. Megatron will certainly accrue tremendous production once again in the upcoming season. His endurance is of note as well, since he has never missed more than a couple games in any single season. Stafford has other receivers at his disposal too.

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The quarterback’s secondary options include newly acquired WR Golden Tate, WR Kevin Ogletree, and WR Kris Durham. Last year, Tate was QB Russell Wilson’s top target. In Seattle, Golden caught 64 balls for 898 yards and five touchdowns last season. Durham was receiver number two in Detroit last year with 38 receptions and 490 yards. Clearly, there was a massive drop-off between the productions of Megatron and Durham. That same disparity in statistics will be evident in the first few games of the season between Johnson and whoever ends up being number two. This is simply a result of Stafford already having chemistry with Johnson. Tate adds another deep threat to this unit though. So when Johnson inevitably does get double or triple covered, Stafford has a reliable option for the long ball. Tate will look to become the clear second option on the offense as soon as the season gets started, but again the chemistry between him and Stafford will take time to develop.

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The running game was the most improved aspect of the Lions’ offense last season. During Stafford’s stretches of inconsistency, the running backs put the offensive workload on their backs. RB Reggie Bush came aboard a season ago and provided instant production with just over 1,000 yards on 223 carries. His ground game is as prominent as his ability to catch the ball in the backfield and accumulate yards after catch. Although Bush is the clear starter on the depth chart, RB Joique Bell was a bit more effective through the air with 53 receptions for 547 yards. Detroit favored Bell at the goal line last year too, as he had four more rushing touchdowns than Bush. Together, these two make for a potent backfield with a combination of explosiveness and an element of surprise.

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The defensive line is the focal point of Detroit’s defense. Their combo of defensive tackles is one of the best the league has to offer. DT Ndamukong Suh and DT Nick Fairley stuff the opposing run game each week while still remaining effective in rushing the quarterback. On the right side, DE Ziggy Ansah had terrific production in his rookie campaign with eight sacks. If he can at least duplicate his performance, opposing offensive lines will strategize to apply extra blocking on the right side, inevitably leaving more room for Suh and Fairley to cause havoc. The linebacker corp is talented as well, albeit not as talented as the defensive line, but shows promise nevertheless.

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LB Stephen Tulloch was the star of the group last year with a team-leading 135 tackles. Another fellow linebacker was second on the list (119) in DeAndre Levy. These two will continue to generate their numbers while working on improving their veteran leadership for the young Lions’ linebackers. Detroit’s secondary was the most fragile piece on the defensive side of the ball. It does not look like they did too much to fix it either in the offseason. CB Darius Slay and CB Rashean Mathis are too shaky on the outside. The defense has a difficult time relying on them when it matters most in games, as the long ball can certainly succeed against these two.

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This Lions unit failed to clinch a playoff berth last year despite leading the division for a considerable amount of time. It is a glim possibility that the Lions will be in first next season, as injuries to significant players played a critical part in their positioning. When QB Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury in Green Bay, the Packers lost their offensive playmaker for the majority of last season, which ultimately led to a void atop the NFC North. The Lions cannot depend on that happening again. The offense will inevitably post spectacular statistics with Stafford and a decent run game, but it is up to the defense to win their games. Stafford’s maturation is still in progress as well, since he made some questionable decisions late last year. Once he develops into a top five quarterback, he will elevate this team to a higher level. Until then, Detroit will be stuck somewhere in the middle of the division and as a result, will not clinch a playoff berth.

 

Pics and Stats from ESPN.com

 

Pittsburgh Steelers 2014-2015 Season Preview

By: Jon

 

Offseason Storylines

After having a great defense under Dick LeBeau over the past 10 years, the Steelers switched tactics and became a more passing oriented offense and a less than stellar defense. The Steelers decided to become more dynamic on offense and added talent through the draft. In the third and fourth round, they drafted speedster Dri Archer and big, physical receiver Martavis Bryant. Although Le’Veon Bell is a great running back, he does not have great speed or home run ability. Archer recorded the fastest 40 time among all the prospects and has the potential to be a playmaker. Along with Archer, Martavis Bryant is incredibly raw, but has the physical ability to become a number one receiver. Bryant will likely never fulfill his true potential, but he may become a solid number two or three option, behind Antonio Brown.

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Similar to the Ravens, the Steelers are revamping their defense through the draft. The Steelers have succeeded because of their defense over the past decade, but the defense has become slow. During the first two rounds of the draft, Pittsburgh drafted Ryan Shazier, outside linebacker, and Stephen Tuitt, nose tackle. At Ohio State, Shazier became a passing rushing star because of his great speed and athleticism. Although Shazier may not be a tackling machine, he will provide pressure on the quarterback and stop opposing rushing quarterbacks like RGIII, Kaepernick, and Johnny Football. Along with the addition of Stephen Tuitt, he has a lot of talent, but has weight issues and has not lived up to expectations. If the Steelers can utilize Tuitt, he will record a lot of tackles for loss and help the Steelers rush defense, which has struggled over the past few seasons.

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Offensive X-Factor

The offensive X-Factor for the team from the Steel City is Markus Wheaton.  Over the past two seasons, the Steelers have lost two of their three best wide receivers, although they continue to evolve as one of the most pass heavy teams in the league. Without the talents of Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers need a new number two to complement last year’s breakout star, Antonio Brown. Wheaton needs to be able to separate from corners quickly because the Steelers’ offensive line has been suspect over the past few seasons. The emergence of Wheaton will help Pittsburgh’s running game as it will free people from the box.

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Defensive X-Factor

An important factor for the Steelers’ defense this season will be Jarvis Jones. Last year’s first round pick had a forgettable year as he recorded only 1 sack and 40 tackles. In college, Jones was one of the most dynamic players in the nation as he posted double digits sack numbers, plenty of tackles, and numerous of game changing plays through interceptions and forced fumbles. The Steelers will need Jones to rediscover his past success if they are going to return to being one of the most feared defenses in the league. The Steelers lack a true pass rusher as no one accumulated more than 8 sacks last season. Although the Steelers have little talent in the front three, they are hoping that their linebackers, Jones, Shazier, Worilds, and Timmons, can provide the pressure on the quarterback. Jones will have to take the responsibility upon himself as Shazier is only a rookie and Worilds and Timmons do not have the necessary pass ruhsing skills. Dick LeBeau is one of the best defensive coordinators of all time and should place Jones in positions to succeed.

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Projections

Last season, the Steelers started as one of the worst teams in football as they lost their first 4 games. Although they started slowly, the nearly made the playoffs, if not for the miracle from the Chargers. The Steelers finished 8-8, including the final three games of the season. The Steelers were able to improve because they transformed from a horrid defensive and passing team to a stout defense and a more run oriented offense. On offense, the Steelers will likely remain a run first offense with the emergence of Le’Veon Bell and the addition of LaGerrette Blount, as long as they are not affected by their latest run in by the law. Towards the end of last season, Bell became one of the best running backs in all of football because he has power and elusiveness. While the running game should continue to improve, the passing game will be steady under the leadership of Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is increasing in age, but the enhanced offensive line and the skills of number one Antonio Brown should allow Ben to produce top ten quarterback numbers. On defense, the team should remain an above average defense. The Steelers made a significant change when they did not choose to re-sign Ryan Clark. Over the past few seasons, Clark has been one of the emotional leaders of the team and a very good safety. Although the team lost Clark, they still have a very good secondary with Polamalu, Gay, Mitchell, and Taylor. The Steelers can become a top five defense in the league, if they are able to provide pressure on the quarterback. The defense should remain a top run defense because they have very good tackling linebackers and a front four that can stuff the line. The Steelers may be in the most competitive division in football as they will compete with the Ravens and Bengals for the division title and playoff spots. Although it is unlikely that they will be able to top the talented Bengals or improved Ravens, they should compete with the other AFC teams for the final playoff spot.

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Record: 9-7

Third in the AFC North

Fantasy Pick:

Fantasy owners should be very excited if they have Le’Veon Bell on their fantasy team this season. Last year, Bell finished tied for 14th among running backs with 160 points, although he did not play the first three games of the season. Over the final five weeks of the season, he averaged 15 points per game. Bell is a safe number one or great number two because he will not be replaced in the red zone, catches the ball out of the backfield, and will not lose carries to a second running back.

 

Pics and Stats from ESPN.com

Baltimore Ravens 2014-2015 Season Preview

By: Jon

 

Offseason Storylines

After coming off of a Super Bowl victory, the Ravens had a below average season and failed to make the playoffs. The Ravens did not have the same success on offense because Ray Rice did not produce the same numbers and Anquan Boldin became a cap casualty. The Ravens are hoping that they can improve their running game through the addition of center Jeremy Zuttah and passing game by signing Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. Although Smith is past his prime, he is a physical wide out that will add an attitude to the offense. Smith still has reasonable speed and should have the potential to go deep and stretch the safeties. The addition of Owen Daniels will provide a second quality tight end for the double tight end sets.

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On defense, the Ravens were hoping to get more youth and athleticism through the draft. Baltimore used their first selections on CJ Mosley, MLB, Timmy Jernigan, NT, and Terrence Brooks, S. Although it is unreasonable to expect Mosley to replace the great Ray Lewis, he was taught by the best defensive coach in college football and has incredible instincts and desire to succeed. Along with Mosley, the Ravens drafted Jernigan because of his potential. Due to his lack of consistency and motor during college, his draft stock fell and Baltimore was able to snag him in the second round. Jernigan will be able to learn under the tutelage of  Haloti Ngata, who has been one of the best interior lineman over the past few seasons. Along with replacing the legendary Ray Lewis, the Ravens hope that Terrence Brooks can become a stud safety like the great Ed Reed. Like Mosley, it is highly unlikely that Brooks can replace a legend, but they should become starters for the new era of a Ravens’ defense.

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Offensive X-Factor

The key for the Ravens this season will be the  reemergence of Ray Rice. The former Scarlet Knight star was at the center of a lot of controversy after the domestic violence issue. The domestic violence problem will cost Rice the first two games of the season. Before the suspension, Rice was one of the worst running backs in the league, last season. The combination of a bad offensive line and a lot of workload caused Rice to slow down and have by far the worst season of his career. It was not a surprise that the Ravens became an average and one dimensional offense. If Rice can return to scaring defense, compile 1000 yards, and score 10 touchdowns, the Ravens should reclaim one of the best offenses in the league, Flacco’s passing game should improve, and the Ravens will compete with the Bengals for the North Division title. When Rice runs effectively, Flacco’s game drastically enhances because he is a great play action passer and it becomes easier for him to throw the deep ball to the Smiths.

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Defensive X-Factor

The third year player out of Colorado, Jimmy Smith, will be important to the success of the Ravens’ defense. The Ravens lost last year’s starter Corey Graham to free agency. Graham was very effective for the Ravens as he accumulated 4 interceptions, defended 12 passes, and totaled 47 tackles. After two seasons as a backup, Smith will finally be given the opportunity to start for Baltimore. When the Ravens drafted Smith, they knew that he had the potential to be a top corner because of his physical skills, but he carried off the field baggage and attitude problems. However, he has been a good soldier while on the Ravens. Smith should become a good starter and replacement for Graham. If Smith can continue his development, he can mature into a solid number one corner and vault the Ravens into a top 5 passing defense.

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Projections

After the Steelers and Ravens dominated the AFC North for the past decade, the Bengals are favored to win the division. However, the Ravens still have many players on offense that led this team to the championship. If Rice can regain his past form, the Ravens should become one of the ten best offenses in the league. Last year, the Ravens admitted that they were too pass heavy and want to run more this season. The addition of a running threat will allow Flacco to throw passes down the field. During his Super Bowl run, Flacco showed that he has the best arm in football and is the best at throwing passes of over 30 yards. The two Smiths, Torrey and Steve, are deep threats, which will fit with Flacco’s talents and allow the Ravens to compete with the Bengals for the division title. Along with the suspect running game, the offensive line must improve if the offense is going to reach its potential. The unit will have more time to unite and gel as a unit. While the offense still has a few question marks, the defense should return to its former status as one of the best in football. Last season, the passing and rushing defenses were ranked inside the top 12, but they are used to being ranked in the top 5. The rush defense should better its ranking as the unit of Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosley, Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw ranks as one of the best cores in football. The unit is great because they have the ability to accumulate sacks and stuff the run. On the defensive line, the trio of Chris Canty, Haloti Ngata, and Brandon Williams need to show that they have the ability to win the battle of trenches. In the secondary, the Ravens were able to total a lot of turnovers, which needs to continue if the Ravens will return to the playoffs.

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Record: 10-6

Second in the AFC East

Fantasy Pick:

Ray Rice has been one of the most consistent fantasy contributors over the past few seasons before last year. However, during preseason, Rice has look more agile, lighter, and quicker. Although Rice will miss the first two games, he should be able to return to being a top 10 or 15 running back. The Ravens will give him more carries since they realized that they cannot win without his success. Also, Rice is a great fantasy option because he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Unlike many running backs, Rice has the physicality to rush in the red zones and score all the rushing touchdowns.