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NFL Early Season: What To Look For

   by Al McMordie - 09/01/2007

The best time of the sports year kicks off this week as we begin the NFL season. From preseason play and recent history we can get a good idea about some of the strengths and weaknesses of several teams.

If you like to play totals keep in mind that the Washington Redskins are 4-0 under the total the last four years in their regular season opener. Washington has a two-headed coaching monster that actually is working against itself. Head coach Joe Gibbs is old school, preferring a powerful running game, which helped the Redskins win Super Bowls in the 1980s and early 90s. He has an excellent one-two punch in the backfield in Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts.

On the other hand, his offensive coordinator, Al Saunders, begins his second season and he ran wide-open attacks in Kansas City. A year ago Saunders said it would take about one year to absorb his complicated playbook. Well, it’s been one year. Still, the Washington offense was weak in preseason, and the Skins scored 16, 9, 16 and 16 points in the first game of the regular season the last four years (3 wins).

And speaking of slow moving offenses, the Ravens are 8-1 under the total in Week 1 of the regular season going back to 1998! The Ravens concluded this preseason with all kinds of injuries on the offensive line, too, with guard Chris Chester (foot) and tackle Steve Edwards (knee) nursing injuries. OT Jonathan Ogden (turf toe) didn’t even practice and first-round pick Ben Grubbs sprained his knee.

The offensive line featured a lot of different looks because of this. At times, Jason Brown would move from left guard to center and Keydrick Vincent would fill the vacancy. Another look included Mike Flynn at center, Brown at left guard and Vincent at right guard. We’ll see if that carries over this weekend (although they are playing Cincinnati, a team that can’t stop the run).

Another team with questions on offense is Cleveland, at quarterback. Coach Romeo Crennel said Charlie Frye is the starter, Derek Anderson is second and rookie Brady Quinn is the third QB. That’s a LOT of youth! Because of this, the Browns have not been an offensive machine, ranking 31st in total offense in 2006. Cleveland is also 4-0 under the total their last four NFL regular season openers.

The Dallas Cowboys have a balanced all around team for new coach Wade Phillips, one that was third in the NFL last season in total offense and fourth in total defense. The one glaring weakness, though, is in the secondary. With Terence Newman hobbled and questionable for the season opener, the Cowboys still need to find someone they can count on to fill in at one corner. They have little confidence in Aaron Glenn, Jacques Reeves, Joey Thomas, Nate Jones, Alan Ball and Quincy Butler.

Nickel corner Aaron Glenn, who was trying to replace Newman, was exposed in preseason for what he really is: an aging, undersized corner who can't cover the bigger, more physical receivers. Jacques Reeves, Joey Thomas and Alan Ball still look raw and unpolished. Keep in mind the Cowboys play three of their first four games against teams that like to take big shots down the field: the Giants, Bears and Rams, all with some big, speedy receivers. Dallas is 4-0 over the total their last four NFL regular season openers.

The Minnesota Vikings like young QB Tarvaris Jackson, but I don’t. At least not yet. He is very raw and not a good decision maker, which is not surprising. Minnesota has Jackson and young Brooks Bollinger at QB. The Vikings are 2-0 under the total their last two openers. They also have a new defensive coordinator in Leslie Frazier. One of the few knocks on former defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin last year was he stubbornly refused to blitz that often. He stayed true to a staple philosophy of the Tampa-2 defense that says pressure on the quarterback needs to come from the front four. As a result, the Vikings finished the season ranked 30th in sacks per pass play and, not coincidently, tied for last against the pass.

This year promises to be different. Frazier is willing to blitz more, to be more creative in hunting down the quarterback, though they didn’t show it in preseason. Not one starter notched a sack during the entire preseason. "We have some things up our sleeve, so to speak," strong safety Darren Sharper said. "We haven't shown you any of it yet. Stay tuned." We will stay tuned. The best time of the sports calendar heats up this week! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie

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