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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Championship Weekend: Ranking the units

These are the 4 best teams left this season, but were are they good? Where are the holes on the teams and importantly, how do they compare to those they'll be going against???

In part one I’ll be taking a look on the offensive side of things and how each of the 4 remaining teams positional units match up against one another. This will help us see where the strengths and weaknesses of each team lie, and how they could stack up against each other on the biggest stage of all.

Tom Brady's not just good at throwing the ball


           1.       New England Patriots

           2.       New York Giants

           3.       Baltimore Ravens

           4.       San Francisco 49ers

Well the order might not surprise anyone, but the gap between 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 is closer than a lot of people might think.

Drew Brees wasn’t the only Quarterback who broke Dan Marino’s 1984 mark of 5,084 passing yards this year. The difference is that Tom Brady didn’t have the luxury of a Dome’s perfect conditions to operate in. In fact, Brady played every single game this season outdoors whereas the Saints benefited from 11 regular season games in the perfect conditions afforded them by indoor arenas. You all know Brady’s story and track record by now. No one manipulates a defense like Brady and when’s on it there’s no one better.

Eli Manning has proven this season that he deserves to be included in the top-tier of Quarterbacks. His performance at Lambeau Field on Sunday night has people asking if he’s a better QB than his brother Peyton, which was a previously unthinkable and even laughable question. He’s elevated his game, not without some help from a stellar pair of wide outs it must be said, and can legitimately duel it out on Sunday’s with the best of them.
Joe Flacco's mustache has been brilliant this year. But the same
can't be said for Joe's arm 
As for Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, their performances in the divisional round couldn’t be more dissimilar. Flacco once again looked poor, lacking in pocket presence and completing just over half of his throws. The play calling of Cam Cameron continues to do poor Joe no favours though, nor does the fact that none of his wide receivers can separate consistently. Flacco’s play this year has dropped considerably, bringing him much closer to the improved Alex Smith.

Smith was more than the efficient game manager he’s been all year. He actually turned into a playmaker against Gregg Williams’ blitz-crazy defense. The best of which was his 28 yard touchdown run on a QB toss-crack left (if you’ve not seen I suggest you do) as well as the throws to Vernon Davis to march down the field and win the game.

Ray Rice has accounted for nearly 40% of the
Ravens yards this season
Running Backs:

                1.       Baltimore Ravens

                2.       San Francisco 49ers

                3.       New York Giants

                4.       New England Patriots

It’s not that New England’s stable of running backs is bad, but unlike the other 3 teams they don’t have that one guy that can take over a ball game, that can get the ball in any situation and be a thorn in the other teams side.

Ray Rice does everything for Baltimore’s offense, he’s their leading rusher (obviously) but also caught 19 balls more than the next guy on the list (Anquan Boldin), and don’t forget that he even threw a touchdown against Seattle. Rice is the 1st guy you plan against when playing the Ravens, and he’ll be the key to their success or failure in Foxboro on Sunday.

Jacobs and Bradshaw are a fearsome duo, but seem to
rarely be healthy at the same time
Frank Gore has long been considered a good back on a bad team, but as the 9ers win games so Gore’s value gets more recognition. With 282 carries this year Gore registered his busiest year since 2006, his 2nd in the league and 1st as a starter, and while the 4.3 yards a carry doesn’t yell spectacular at you but he’s been the linchpin to the 49ers offense all year, taking pressure off of Alex Smith and giving him favourable match ups as the opposition focus on stopping Gore.

The tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs has had its ups and down this season, but when both of them are healthy they can run the ball at over 5 yards a pop between them. Brandon Jacobs looked like he was washed up earlier in the season, but has recently rounded into fine, run you over, form.

And as for the Pats? Well their pick-n-mix backfield changes every week, heck 2nd year tight end Aaron Hernandez was their leading rusher against Denver. Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and the old timer Kevin Faulk can get it done when they need to. But why take the ball out of Brady’s hands?

Offensive Line:

           1.       New England Patriots

           2.       San Francisco 49ers

           3.       New York Giants

           4.       Baltimore Ravens

It’s no coincidence that year in year out the teams with the best offensive lines make it deep into the Playoffs. A good O-Line is the best friend of “skill” position players, and so it has proved again this season.
The Pats have a fantastic, and deep, offensive line
New England’s line has been simply stellar all year. Despite losing All-Pro centre Dan Koppen mid-way through the 1st game they didn’t miss a beat, Brian Waters walked onto the team a few days before week 1 and is now headed to Hawaii (if he’s not going to Indy that is). Rookie tackle Nate Solder has been lining up at both tackles and at tight end this year, providing extra blocking prowess when needed. Throw in another pro-bowl Guard in Logan Mankins, a renaissance season from Matt Light and you’ve got reason 1a that Tom Brady was able to throw 5,200 yards this season.

San Francisco line is the “best line in football” in-waiting. After spending 2 1st round picks in 2010 on guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis to add to stud left tackle Joe Staley and blossoming centre Jonathan Goodwin the 9ers have an offensive line that is fast, angry and athletic. The afore mentioned 28 yard toss-crack run from Alex Smith on Saturday was highlighted by former college TE Joe Staley pulling out and escorting him all the way down the field before making a cut block at the 10 to spring the QB. It was a great demonstration of why we here at TPL love Joe Staley.
Helmet or not, Joe Staley isn't letting anyone past
The Giants made a raft of offensive line changes prior to the start of the season and thanks to the efforts of David Diehl (LT) and Chris Snee (RG) they’ve been able to come through pretty well. Kevin Boothe was thrust into action and has turned out to be a fairly decent guard while Diehl and Snee continue on their fantastic careers. One of my favourite plays of the season came on a simple run to the left against the Rams where Chris Snee got perfect inside position on the defensive tackle and controlled him with his right hand while extending the left to pick up a blitzing linebacker. It was a play missed by 98% of those watching but that made all of us, even Phil who supports the Rams, very happy.

Once again the 4th team in this ranking isn’t here because they are particularly bad, it’s just the other teams have incredible units. However, they have regressed a little from previous highs.

Tackle Michael Oher has started to look out of place in the NFL, both he and guard Marshal Yanda were victimised by rookie end JJ Watt (although Watt is already looking like one of the best 3-4 ends in the league) while left guard Ben Grubbs hasn’t quite been his usual self either. They’re still opening up holes for Ray Rice and looking after Flacco but as a unit they’re just not as dominating as they used to be. It might be an area the Ravens look to improve on in the off-season.

The only way to stop them might be to hope
they just into each other
Wide Receivers:

           1.       New York Giants
           2.       New England Patriots

           3.       Baltimore Ravens

           4.       San Francisco 49ers

It’s a walk over for the No. 1 spot here. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks have been at a phenomenally high level all year. They’ve cut through every secondary they’ve been faced with and have made some truly incredible plays after the catch. If the Giants are to overcome a 49ers defense that battered the Saints all day these guys will be a huge reason for it.

2nd on this list really belongs to one man. Wes Welker. The Pats wide receiver corps is very bare; Deion Branch is unable to get open consistently, Chad Ochocinco simply doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to be doing out there, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are now DB’s. So that leaves little Wes. Since arriving in New England from Miami Wes Welker has been shredding defenses in an entirely unique way. He makes his money not with 2 or 3 long catches a week, but 6 or 7 little grabs over the middle for 1st downs. He’s a chain-moving, pass-catching effort player. And one of the best receivers in the league.

The problem for the Ravens at wide out is a little harder to pin down and is probably a schematic one. They just never seem to get open. Despite talent in veteran Anquan Boldin and the young speedster Torrey Smith nothing ever seems to go right for the Ravens passing game. A lot has been made of their “old-school” offensive system. Unlike most teams in the NFL at the moment they rarely have a 3rd WR out on the field. A lot of this has to do with the great job that Vonta Leach has done at full back and the help he’s bought to the run game, but with Flacco’s dip in completion percentage (62.6 in 2010, 57.6 this season) has come a lot of scrutiny for the WR corps. They’ll all need to show something against New England.
Bright spots have been few and far between this year
for the Ravens wide receivers
The 49ers are really thin at Wide Out. Michael Crabtree has flashes where you can see that top 1st round talent he displayed in college, but there’s a lot of drops in there too. Behind Crabtree is a cavalcade of “Who the hell are you?” players like Kyle Williams and Josh Morgan as well as Ted Ginn who is really a kick returner specialist now.

I wouldn’t be surprised if come draft day the 9ers look to address the lack of talent on the outside

Tight Ends:

           1.       New England Patriots

           2.       San Francisco 49ers
           3.       Baltimore Ravens

           4.       New York Giants

If you can think of a way to stop them there are 31 teams
in the NFL who'll give you a lot of money
This is very much a no contest when it comes to the No. 1 slot. Rob Gronkowski broke the yards and TD’s record for tight ends this season, throw in Aaron Hernandez and you have a nearly unstoppable combination. Brady uses them in a manner of different ways, from Hernandez lining up in the backfield and running the ball to Gronk making fantastic trap blocks to spring a running back. They are match-up nightmares for defenses around the league.

No. 2 is pretty set too after Vernon Davis’ “remember me?” party on Saturday. With all the talk of Gronkowski, Graham and Finley being the next big thing at the tight end position Vernon Davis had been forgotten, well a few years of losing on the west coast will do that to you. But Davis still has all the physical tools that made him the 6th overall pick in 2006, and with the leadership of Jim Harbaugh he’s knuckled down and started showing what he’s all about. The emotional showing after his fantastic game winner on Saturday shows the kid cares, isn’t that what we all ask from the players on our team, “Look like you give a damn.”?
It was perhaps the best game of playoff football ever,
And Vernon Davis was a huge reason why

The giants and Ravens here are pretty interchangeable. The Giants have 1 pass catcher in Jake Ballard, the Ravens have 2 in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta which is why they get the nod.

None of them are the game-breakers that the Pats and 9ers possess, but they’re useful players who you can’t ignore as they do have some big play potential. 8 of the Ravens 21 passing TD’s came from their TE’s while Ballard came up with big plays against New England in the regular season and had a higher yards per catch average than Hakeem Nicks. Don’t underestimate these guys.

          -     Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
          -     The Pulling Linemen

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