With the release of the NFL Schedule on Wednesday, NFL fans everwhere could smell the blood in the water. It is time. Time to start planning tail-gates. Time to break out the jerseys. Time to stock up on the beer. Sure, the games are still months away, but the schedule is out this week. Super Bowl dreams start now. With that in mind, JetNation offers a sneak peek at what we can expect this season, whenever it gets here. Weeks 1-4, the first part in a three-part series, below:
Week 1: @ Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, September 11, 1:00 on CBS
Sportsline.com power ranking: 17
2004 Finish: 7-9
The Skinny: Last season the Chiefs couldn’t stop anybody through the air and they weren’t too hot at stopping people on the ground, either. Bringing in Gunther Cunningham to run the D couldn’t compensate for the extreme lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Slow linebackers, combined with a physical, but undisciplined secondary, led to the Chiefs’ dead-last ranking against the pass in ’04. Though the front four can bring the pressure, the Chiefs could not mask their inability to cover receivers on any part of the field, and that led them to a 7-9 finish despite having the top offense in terms of yards-per-game, in the league.
On offense, the Chiefs are explosive, if inconsistent, ranking 1st overall in 2004 despite the lack of a true #1 wide receiver. Johnny Morton and Eddie Kennison, with Dante Hall in the slot, do not scare too many secondaries as a unit. However, TE Tony Gonzalez (102 receptions in ’04) and Priest Holmes (892 yards in 9 starts) continue to rewrite the history books at their respective positions. QB Trent Green, a talented but enigmatic passer, is dynamic one week, stupefyingly erratic the next. Last season he threw 27 TD’s, but also tossed up 17 INT’s–often putting an already struggling defense in bad positions on the field at inopportune times with his careless throws. The Chiefs real strength on offense is clearly their offensive line, with LT Willie Roaf, RG Will Shields, C Casey Wiegmann, LG Brian Waters and RT John Welbourne combining to dominate in both the running and passing games.
Additions/Subtractions: The Chiefs are desperately looking to patch holes in that porous linebacker corps and in the defensive backfield. They paid big bucks to ILB Kendrell Bell (Steelers) whose back may or may not be healed completely. Also, the team added the aging and slow playmaking SS Sammy Knight (Dolphins) and DE Carlos Hall (Titans) to help with the pass rush. The Chiefs are rumored to be the front runners to end up with soon-to-be-traded Dolphins CB Patrick Surtain, whose help in the secondary is needed.
Losses include back-up RB Derrick Blaylock, who filled in admirably for Priest Holmes with 539 yards in only 5 starts when Holmes went down with injury. Blaylock signed with the Jets as a UFA. The Chiefs also cut ties with disappointing DE Vonnie Holliday, who subsequently signed with the Dolphins.
Draft Position: 15th overall, first round
The DraftDaddy.com Mock Draft Pick: Carlos Rogers, CB, Auburn~
Adding Surtain and Rogers in the same off-season would be a coup for the Chiefs, and will allow Gunther Cunningham to get back to his aggressive blitzing roots, knowing that his corners are capable of running with any receivers in the league. The Chiefs might also draft a WR with some size and speed on the first day, and then seek help at OLB and S. They need defensive speed in the worst way.
If the Jets hope to win this game: Jon McGraw, in his new role as designated TE stopper, will have to stick to Tony Gonzalez all over the field. McGraw’s size and speed make him a perfect fit for this assignment, and all credit goes to DC Donnie Henderson for finally figuring out what to do with McGraw’s unique talents. Chad Pennington, assuming he’s back from shoulder surgery, should find it relatively easy to break in his new arm against the Chiefs, even if they do add Surtain and Rogers. The Chiefs are a long way from establishing a cutthroat mentality on defense, and new Jets OC Mike Heimerdinger should have an easy time working in new sets against them.
Match-up to watch: The Jets defensive line versus the Chiefs offensive line~ This will be a great test for Dewayne Robertson, Sean Ellis and, if he’s still with the team, John Abraham to send an early message to the rest of the league that they have come out not only to play, but to dominate. Playing big against the Chiefs’ O-Line, widely considered the best group in the league, will give this Jets group a ton of confidence moving forward into the season.
Week 2: MIAMI DOLPHINS
Sunday, September 18th, 4:15 on CBS
Sportsline.com power ranking: 30
2004 Finish: 4-12
The Skinny: The best thing you could say about the 2004 Dolphins is that they didn’t just all-out quit. Their dramatic Week 16 win against the Patriots in Miami under interim coach Jim Bates was inspiring and gave Dolphins fans hope for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, all the hope in the world is not going to help the Dolphins win any games next season. One can only hope that new HC Nick Saban received all of that Huizenga money up front because he is in for the rebuilding job of his life. Saban’s specialty was taking hopeless college teams and turning them around. Someone better tell Nick that it’s a little harder to do that in the AFC East than it is in the SEC or Big Ten.
The defense in 2004 played hard, but couldn’t overcome having to be on the field for most of the game as a result of a pitiful Dolphins offense that couldn’t stay on the field. MLB Zach Thomas and DE Jason Taylor will return to camp to try and learn new positions in Saban’s hybrid 3-4 alignment. This transition will be the story of the Dolphins season, as Saban is known as an arrogant guy who doesn’t relate well to veteran players. If Taylor or Thomas don’t take well to the 3-4, which neither player is well-suited to play, things could get testy in South Florida early on
The dramatic retirement of Ricky Williams right before camp opened last year ruined any chances the Dolphins had of competing on offense. It served Dave Wannstedt right for trying to build his offense and his team around a renowned flake like Williams. While Williams was off in the bush getting high, his offensive teammates were watching the 2004 season slip by. Jay Fiedler was replaced by A.J. Feeley early on and struggled, then was injured, and returned to struggle again. The few legitimate stars on offense–TE Randy McMichael and WR Chris Chambers–are hoping somebody emerges, whether it be Feeley or a high draft pick, to throw them the ball.
Additions/Subtractions: Saban has been scurrying, adding as many bodies as he can to try and change the losing atmosphere around the Dolphins facilities. Unfortunately, he hasn’t added any true impact players. The big name signing was Tennessee’s Kevin Carter, who comes in with a big price tag and will be expected to help shore up the inside of that defense. Carter’s best days are clearly behind him, but he can still be a steady, serviceable player when motivated. Adding OT’s Damion Cook (Cleveland) and Stockar McDougle (Detroit) as FA’s won’t do much to help a pathetic offensive line that couldn’t get out of its own way last season. Although replacing Todd Wade and John St. Clair at the tackle slots would be a smart move, neither McDougle nor Cook are significant upgrades.
Losses include QB Jay Fiedler (Jets), LB Morlon Greenwood (Texans) and SS Sammy Knight (Chiefs). Losing Fiedler could come back to bite the Dolphins if, as expected, they end up drafting RB in the first round and A.J. Feeley turns out to not be a #1 QB. Greenwood received an obsene amount of money to leave for Houston, and it’s a shame, as he is just the type of young, developing player that Saban could have used. Knight’s loss won’t be felt so much from a performance standpoint, rather, the Dolphins will miss his leadership. Still, his lack of speed hurt them at times last season, so all in all, it’s not a tremendous loss.
Draft Position: 2nd overall, first round
The DraftDaddy.com Mock Draft Pick: Ronnie Brown, RB, Auburn~
Picking up a back like Brown will be an absolute necessity for the Dolphins if they hope to win anything next season. Brown is big, fast and has great hands, so he has every chance to be an excellent player for them, even if the offensive line takes some time to gel. Brown can runn effectively outside or inside, though he’s not a great creator on the move. Still young backs have done well coming into the league running behind less-than-ideal talent blocking for them. LaDanian Tomlinson immediately comes to mind. If new OC Scott Linehan is smart, and he is, he’ll make sue to move Brown around alot on offense to keep him from getting pounded early on.
If the Jets hope to win this game: Their offensive line is going to have to keep Jason Taylor off of Chad Pennington’s back. If, as Herm Edwards predicted, Adrian Jones opens the season as the starter at left tackle, Jason Taylor could give young Jones an education in how to get beat like a rug. Jones struggled terribly in limited pre-season action last season against speed rushers, and if he draws Jason Taylor in his second outing, Jones, and the Jets, could be in for a long afternoon.
Match-up to watch: MLB Jonathan Vilma versus RB Ronnie Brown~ Brown is a 230 lb. sledgehammer when he gets a head of steam going, and he could cause some problems for the smaller Vilma, particularly if the Jets defensive line proves vulnerable after the loss in free agency of DT Jason Ferguson. If Fergy’s replacements can’t shield Vilma from getting hung up in traffic, Brown could have a field day against the Jets D.
Week 3: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Sunday, September 25th, 1:00 on CBS
Sportsline.com power ranking: 10
2004 Finish: 9-7
The Skinny: Mirroring their Head Coach, the Jaguars are a tough, gritty, if unspectacular team. Jack DelRio has them headed in the right direction, with a combination of good young players and heady veterans. That said, the Jags are going to have to find a way to stay healthy in key spots, as well as hope that Byron Leftwich continues his progress towards becoming a Pro Bowl quarterback.
On offense, Leftwich struggled mightily at times against complicated blitzing schemes. While he finished the season completing over 60% of his passes, Leftwich was exposed a few times as being incapable of checking down to his 3rd and 4th reads. Adding some quality receivers will help, to be sure, but the key on offense is Leftwich. RB Fred Taylor contributed his usual performance in ’04, splitting time between flashes of greatness and stays on the injured list. If he was ever able to put a full season together, Taylor could be an All-Pro back, but that seems to be wishful thinking at this point. 87 year-old Jimmy Smith is still plugging along and still getting open, but outside of Smith, there’s little else for Leftwich to throw to. ’04 rookie wideouts Ernest Wilford and disappointing first round pick Reggie Williams struggled to adjust to the speed of the pro game, and left Leftwich on his own looking for them downfield, but with no luck. Any improvement in Williams’ and Wilford’s ability to get open with their great size, will help Leftwich immeasurably.
Defensively, the Jags have the best defensive tackle combo in the league with John Henderson and Marcus Stroud teaming up inside to stuff running games and get great pressure. The linebackers have great potential, and are young, fast and tough in Daryl Smith and Akin Ayodele leading the way here. Although they struggled at times with over-aggressive play, DelRio is committed to molding a hard-nosed and hard-hitting unit. The weakness on the Jags’ defense is in the secondary, where Rashean Mathis is a solid, ball-hawking corner, but outside of him, there’s little else. Stalwart SS Donovin Darius, upset at the state of his contract, is committed to getting himself traded out of Jacksonville before the draft, and ownership seems willing to oblige him, but only for the right deal. If Darius is gone as expected, there could be three new starters in teh Jaguars’ secondary. Last year’s starters at the other corner slot, Dewayne Washington and Juran Bolden are no longer with the team, and help is desperately needed here in order to make DelRio’s system work. FS Deon Grant, one of Jacksonville’s big ’04 free agent signings, was a major disappointment and could be replaced. Still, the Jags finished 10th overall in yards allowed on defense, due mainly to great play by their interior defensive linemen.
Additions/Subtractions: There’s nothing much of note on this front. The big news would be the potential trade of Darius to anyone willing to take on a big contract for a declining, limited strong safety in exchange for a Day One draft pick–not very likely. The Jags signed CB Terry Cousin (Giants) and DB Kenny Wright (Texans), possibly to man a safety slot. Gone are CB’s Juran Bolden and Dewayne Washington, who were both terrible for the Jags in ’04.
Draft Position: 21st overall, first round
The DraftDaddy.com Mock Draft Pick: Adam “Pac-Man” Jones, CB, West Virginia~
Getting a value pick like Jones this late in the first round would bring alot of cheers in the Jags’ War Room on Draft Day. Jones’s value was hurt when he ran in the 4.5’s during his pro day after it was widely believed that he would run a sub-4.4/40. Still, Jones is a great competitor and a quick, tough corner who will complement Mathis’s skills well in the Jags defensive backfield. DelRio may also look at a pass-rusher like Matt Roth, if he’s available, to work alongside his horses at defensive tackle in Henderson and Stroud.
If the Jets hope to win this game: OC Mike Heimerdinger will have to come up an answer for Stroud and Henderson inside. The Jags ranked 10th overall against the rush last season because they controlled the middle of the field with their defensive tackles. The Jets will have an easier time dropping back and passing and letting Coles and McCareins run after the catch against what promises to be a porous secondary group, even with the addition of Pac-Man Jones. On defense, the Jets and DC Donnie Henderson will switch things up to confuse Byron Leftwich, making him have to think about where he needs to go with the ball. The Jags offensive line struggled to protect the immobile Leftwich last season, so Sean Ellis and John Abraham could have monster games against Mike Pearson and Ephram Salaam. This will be the Jets’ home opener, so they should be able to cause Letwich all kinds of problems.
Match-up to watch: RB Derrick Blaylock versus OLB Akin Ayodele~ Ayodele is one of the most athletic OLB’s in the league, and if the Jets are forced to stop pounding it inside with Curtis Martin, Blaylock, with his speed and quickness, could get the call to try the outside of that Jacksonville front seven. In that case, Ayodele’s ability to track Blaylock might become the difference in the game. Providing that change of pace to Curtis Martin is exactly why Blaylock was signed away from Kansas City. He might get the chance to prove he can do it here.
Week 4: @ Baltimore RavensSunday, October 2nd, 4:05 on CBS
Sportsline.com power ranking: 5th
2004 Finish: 9-7
The Skinny: If the brain-trust of Brain Billick, Jim Fassel and Rick Neuheisel, all offensive masterminds, can’t make Kyle Boller into a serviceable quarterback by the time the second pre-season game rolls around, they should eject Boller into outer space immediately thereafter. The Ravens can shut people down on defense, but offensively, they follow Boller’s lead, and that was enough to earn them the dead last ranking in the passing yards-per-game category. Not that the Ravens aspire to throw the ball all over the ballpark, but in order to compete for a championship, Boller has to do better than 13 TD’s to go along with 11 picks. Now in his third year, Boller is going to have to step up and be “the guy.” Jamal Lewis continues to pound on opposing defenses, but the plan would seem to be to take some pressure off of him by opening up the offense, particularly by throwing it to TE Todd Heap. Heap, injured for much of last season, is a dynamic weapon when healthy and will make life easier for everyone around him if he can avoid injury. Young WR Clarence Moore is a huge target who came on late last year, but the Ravens desperately need a legitimate game-breaker at the wideout slot. Having been rebuffed in their attempts to trade for Terrel Owens last season and Randy Moss during this off-season (neither wanting any part of reeling in Boller’s frisbee tosses), the Ravens will have to find some luck in the draft to fill that hole.
Defensively, the Ravens return what may be the scariest unit, man for man, in the league. It all starts with MLB Ray Lewis, of course, but add in DE Terrell Suggs, OLB Peter Boulware, SS Ed Reed, CB Chris McAlister and free agent pick-ups OLB Tommy Polley and CB Samari Rolle, and there isn’t an offene out there that they can’t match up with effectively. With the loss of DC Mike Nolan to San Francisco, the Ravens will switch back to the 4-3, where Lewis is more comfortable, and where Suggs can go back to his more natural position at DE. While they were still a tough group, the Ravens D lost a little bit of its swagger in the 3-4, as it seemed they each spent too much time reading and reacting instead of attacking. This season, the dogs will be let loose, and the rest of the league is on alert.
Additions/Subtractions: The Ravens had some pretty significant losses in ILB Edgerton Hartwell (Falcons) and CB Gary Baxter (Browns), not to mention starting wideouts Travis Taylor (Vikings) and Kevin Johnson (Released). However, Ozzie Newsome moved quickly to replace them with WR Derrick Mason (Titans), OLB Tommy Polley (Rams) and CB Samari Rolle (Titans). The WR losses won’t hurt too much, as both Taylor and Johnson were ineffective anyway, and the position needed to be re-worked regardless. Mason is a good start towards that.
Draft Position: 22nd overall, first round
The DraftDaddy.com Mock Draft Pick: Mark Clayton, WR, Oklahoma~
Clayton, though lacking elite size, might be the most polished WR in the draft after Mike Williams. Clayton has experience playing with talented, yet flaky, QB’s, considering he played with Jason White for four years at Oklahoma. Clayton is quicker than he is fast, which is saying something considering Clayton runs a 4.4/40. His route-running is pristine, and his hands are immaculate, which will help Boller immeasurably. The guy that Clayton is most often compared to is Colts WR Marvin Harrison, not just because of his similar size, but also because of their playing styles, which reflect a ‘sixth sense’ towards getting themselves open at any time. Now, if Boller can just borrow some of Peyton Manning’s brain cells…
If the Jets hope to win the game: They’re going to have to find a way to control Ray Lewis and keep the football out of Ed Reed’s hands. The Jets actually match up well with the Ravens, as they don’t get rattled by the Ravens’ physical style. However, the Jets have to find ways to close out these games coming down the stretch and come away with the win. Seemingly every Jets-Ravens game is won by the Ravens lat in the fourth quarter. Sure, this is a product of the Ravens not scoring a ton of points, but you have to give the Jets credit for not backing down to Ray Lewis and crew. If the Jets are going to win this game, they are going to have to continue to put the clamps on Boller, and they’re going to have to get into the end zone at least three times, whether it’s on a kick return or on interception/fumble returns. With Fassel calling plays and with Neuheisel coaching up Boller, that Ravens offense may come out and surprise next year. Also worth noting is that the Ravens will be coming off of a Week 3 Bye for this game while the Jets will be coming off of two very physical back-to-back games against the Dolphins and the Jaguars.
Match-up to watch: Herm Edwards versus the NY media. Herm and Dick Curl were embarrassed last season when they butchered the clock management at the end of the Ravens game, after which Herman tried to blame everyone from Quincy Carter to Quincy Jones for the screw-up. Even though OC Heimerdinger will be running the clock operations this season by himself, the media could be looking to pick at the scab of 2004’s humiliation. Particularly if the team is off to a rough start, this could be the first Herman blow-up of the year. Hw he handles it could set the tempo for the rest of a tough season. Flava Herm will have to be ready for the onslaught of barbs, or his team could fracture in front of him.
Coming soon:October 9th (Sunday) TAMPA BAY – 1:00 pm (FOX)
October 16th (Sunday) at Buffalo – 4:15 pm (CBS)
October 24th (Monday) at Atlanta – 9:00 pm (ABC)
October 30th (Sunday) – BYE
November 6th (Sunday) SAN DIEGO – 1:00 pm (CBS)
November 13th (Sunday) at Carolina – 4:05 pm (CBS)
November 20th (Sunday) at Denver – 4:15 pm (CBS)
November 27th (Sunday) NEW ORLEANS – 8:30 pm (ESPN)
December 4th (Sunday) at New England – 4:15 pm (CBS)
December 11th (Sunday) OAKLAND – 1:00 pm (CBS)
December 18th (Sunday) at Miami – 1:00 pm (CBS)
December 26th (Monday) NEW ENGLAND – 9:00 pm (ABC)
January 1st (Sunday) BUFFALO – 1:00 pm ( CBS)