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Defense – A look back at 2006 The Hawks defense started strong but really broke down as the season wore on. MLB Lofa Tatupu, OLB LeRoy Hill, DT Rocky Bernard, FS Ken Hamlin, SS Michael Boulware and DE Grant Wistrom all took significant steps backward. And that’s saying a lot for someone like Wistrom who already sucked. Tatupu and Hill seemed to really suffer from the lines inability to occupy blockers. The defense is built for pursuit, and really struggled when people ran right at that them, especially when Marcus Tubbs got injured. The Hawks amazingly gave up ~182 rushing yards/game in their seven losses, at clip of almost 5 yards/carry. Compare that to the average of ~86 yards/game in their wins, and it’s not hard to see just how critical the run defense was. There was also a drastic dropoff in red zone defense. Run defense and red-zone defense make or break a defense. Case in point, the Seahawks pass defense ranking improved last year, but would anyone who watched the team say the defense looked stronger? Defense – Starters Patrick Kerney – RDE Rocky Bernard – DT Chuck Darby – DT Darryl Tapp – LDE Julian Peterson** – OLB Lofa Tatupu** – MLB LeRoy Hill – OLB Marcus Trufant – RCB Deon Grant – SS Brian Russell – FS Kelly Jennings – LCB ** Pro Bowl Defense – Running Game In the last seven games of before the 2005 Super Bowl (5 regular season, 2 playoff), the Hawks allowed an incredible 58 yards rushing/game. They only allowed one 100 yard rusher (game 11 Tiki Barber) and that didn’t happen until overtime. They allowed *seven* last season. As I mentioned in the off-season recap in Part I, the front office put way too much trust in Marcus Tubbs’ recovery from surgery when building their gameplan for improving the run defense. With Tubbs’ out, they must get contributions from Brandon Mebane, and pro bowl seasons from their linebacking crew. One of the great mysteries of last year was how a defense that was so great at finishing tackles in ’05 had trouble tackling in ’06. That has to change this year. Defense – Passing Game Everyone is excited about the additions of Brian Russell and Deon Grant at the safety spots, and for good reason. Hamlin and Boulware killed us last year. I haven’t seen enough of either new guy to celebrate just yet. Neither seems as physical as our old safeties, and a lot of people forget how helpful Boulware was against the run. The big red flag in this area is the cornerbacks. If rookie Josh Wilson is our nickel corner, he’s going to need safety help all year. The hope is that an improved pass rush will help. Defense – Defensive Line Kerney and Tapp should be significant upgrades at the DE position in terms of playmaking ability. Mebane will push for playing time. Rocky Bernard should get off to a fast start as teams will key on Kerney. This unit remains vulnerable to large offensive lines that will run right at them. Defense – Linebackers Tatupu made the pro bowl on reputation last year. He was not the player he was the year before. Julian Peterson was the playmaker we needed him to be, but is much stronger defending the pass—either by rushing the passer or covering a player—than against the run. LeRoy Hill disappeared last year after getting 7.5 sacks in his rookie season. Look for a big year from him as there is no way team’s will be gameplanning for him. One of my favorite players that will only see the field on special teams in Lance Laury. The guy hits like a mack truck. Defense – Secondary Enough about the starting safeties. Mike Green also provides an upgrade at the backup safety spot. He should see some action on running downs. He hits a ton, and has a propensity for creating turnovers. Kelly Jennings had a credible rookie season last year. Any rookie CB that goes a full season without being noticed is doing a great job. They usually get picked on quite a bit. He’s a starter now, and will be tested a lot. Should he get burned and lose confidence, look for Jordan Babineaux to take over, or possibly Josh Wilson. Defense – Overall 2006 Outlook There are a lot more playmakers on the defense this season. Adding Kerney and Tapp means teams will have a harder time accounting for Peterson, Bernard, Hill, Tatupu, and Mebane. The pass rush should be improved, which is always a huge. Jim Mora supposedly has brought some more exotic blitz packages over from Atlanta as well. I won’t have confidence that this team can consistently stop the run until I see it happen. It certainly didn’t happen in the pre-season. Teams were getting big chunks of yards up the gut just like last year. If the team can find a way to be a top 15 run defense, I think this will be the year they are a Top 10 overall defense. Special Teams – Overall 2006 Outlook Kicker good. Punter good. Punt returner and kick returner good. ‘Nuff said. Scouting the NFC West
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco has taken over for Arizona as the media darling this year, and it’s not without merit. The Cardinals were anointed before they had actually done anything. The 49ers trounced the Hawks twice, and added a lot of talent during the off-season. They are weaker on defense than people realize and are relying on aging and injury-prone offensive lineman. I’m not a believer in Alex Smith yet, but they will not be pushovers.St. Louis RamsThe Rams are very similar to what they were last year. They are a Top 5 offense and a bottom 10-15 defense. They will challenge any team they play, but they are not championship-caliber. It will be interesting to see what they do with a real TE this season. When the Rams throw Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Drew Bennett, Randy McMichael and Stephen Jackson on the field together it is going to be very tough on defenses to key on any of them. Look for second-year CB Tye Hill to make a name for himself this season. He showed glimpses of real playmaking ability last year as a rookie.Arizona CardinalsThe poor Cardinals could never meet expectations. People stopped watching them last year, and guess what? They blossomed. That horrible offensive line started opening holes for Edgerrin James and protecting Matt Leinart. Adding Russ Grim as a line coach and Ken Whisenhunt as head coach could have big implications. There is not a stronger WR tandem in the NFL, and Leinart has pro bowl potential. They have a great new stadium and renewed fan support. They have pro bowl talent on defense and a creative scheme. A watched pot never boils, and nobody seems to be watching the Cards anymore. Watch out.
Scouting The Opponents 1 Sun, Sep 9 Tampa Bay Analysis: Win 2 Sun, Sep 16 at Arizona Analysis: Win 3 Sun, Sep 23 Cincinnati Analysis: Win 4 Sun, Sep 30 at San Francisco Analysis: Loss 5 Sun, Oct 7 at Pittsburgh Analysis: Loss 6 Sun, Oct 14 New Orleans Analysis: Win 7 Sun, Oct 21 St. Louis Analysis: Win 8 BYE WEEK 9 Sun, Nov 4 at Cleveland Analysis: Win 10 Mon, Nov 12 San Francisco Analysis: Win 11 Sun, Nov 18 Chicago Analysis: Win 12 Sun, Nov 25 at St. Louis Analysis: Loss 13 Sun, Dec 2 at Philadelphia Analysis: Loss 14 Sun, Dec 9 Arizona Analysis: Win 15 Sun, Dec 16 at Carolina Analysis: Loss 16 Sun, Dec 23 Baltimore Analysis: Loss 17 Sun, Dec 30 at Atlanta Analysis: Win REGULAR SEASON TOTAL: 10-6 Prediction: The Cardinals, not the 49ers or Rams, will challenge and possibly win the division. Any team in the division could finish first or last. If the Hawks make the playoffs healthy, they have a real shot at returning to the big dance. If they don’t make it this year, brace for rebuilding.