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Five NFL defenses that (potentially) improved over the offseason

Seeing as how no teams have played a down yet, it makes it difficult to gauge which defenses will be improved in 2012. But based on the decisions they made in free agency and the draft, these five teams should be improved defensively next season.

Buffalo Bills
Think of the impact that Julius Peppers has had with the Bears the past two seasons – that’s exactly what Mario Williams could do for the Bills in 2012. Buffalo’s defense struggled last season mostly because the pass rush was non-existent. So GM Buddy Nix lured Williams to Buffalo this offseason and made sure he didn’t leave the city without first signing a contract. Nix also signed Mark Anderson, an experienced situational pass rusher that should benefit from playing opposite Williams in the Bills’ “new” 4-3. Adding cornerback Stephon Gillmore should also help Buffalo on the backend while Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder will add depth to the linebacker corps. We’ll have to see how the Dave Wannstedt hire pans out but for now, there’s no question the Bills have upgraded their pass rush in one offseason.

Dallas Cowboys
With the moves they made this offseason, the Cowboys’ defense could transform from a top 15 unit into a top 10. DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Sean Lee comprise a solid front seven but Dallas struggled on the back end in 2012. So Jerry Jones invested $50.1 million and a second round pick on his cornerback positions this offseason with the additions of free agent Brandon Carr (the best CB on the market) and first-round pick Morris Claiborne (the best CB in the draft). It’s never guaranteed that a big money free agent or a rookie will make an immediate impact but at least on paper, the Cowboys have definitely improved their secondary. The signing of Dan Connor was also somewhat underrated as well. He struggles at times in coverage and he’s not a pass rusher but he’ll be perfect for what Dallas signed him for: an insider ‘backer that can bolster the run defense.

Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were productive this offseason in re-signing John Abraham (their best and sometimes only pass rusher last season), safety Thomas DeCoud (who is better than his reputation would suggest), and situational pass rusher Kroy Biermann (who appeared to be distracted last year, although marrying a reality TV star and parenting a newborn will do that to a man). But fans grew aggravated by GM Thomas Dimitroff’s inactivity in free agency and expressed disappointment that the team didn’t go after big money talent like Mario Williams. (Fans were also upset that the team didn’t re-sign MLB Curtis Lofton, who wound up landing with division rival New Orleans.) But the day before the draft Atlanta swung a deal that could only be considered as a steal. Acquiring a three-time Pro Bowler in Asante Samuel for a seventh round pick was a bargain for any team, especially one that struggled getting off the field last season on third downs. Furthermore, the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was a huge coup for the Falcons, who should be more aggressive and better equipped to handle explosive offenses like New Orleans, Green Bay and New York. No, the Falcons weren’t very active in free agency this year. But the re-signing of Abraham, the acquisition of Samuel and the hiring of Nolan should be more than enough to make this an improved Falcons squad.

Philadelphia Eagles
After struggling early in the season, the Eagles wound up being a top 10 defensive unit in 2011. But here’s why they’ll be improved in 2012. Juan Castillo has a full year of experience under his belt and the pressure he faced last year being a first-time defensive coordinator should lessen. Andy Reid also hit a home run in this year’s draft. Fletcher Cox has top 10 talent and the Eagles landed him at No. 12 (after moving up). Mychal Kendricks is undersized for the position but he was extremely productive at Cal, he hits like a Mac truck and he plays at 110mph every down. Vinny Curry is raw but he has potential as a pass rush and the only reason Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin fell to the fourth round was because he broke his leg at the Senior Bowl and was limited in pre-draft workouts. Otherwise, he’s a second-round prospect. Re-signing Derek Landri was also good for depth purposes and acquiring DeMeco Ryans from Houston should help the run defense.

St. Louis Rams
The Rams are a bit of a wildcard but considering they ranked 22nd in yards allowed, 31st in run defense and 26th in points allowed, there’s really nowhere to go but up. There are five moves the Rams made this offseason that should prove to beneficial in 2012. The first was hiring defensive-minded Jeff Fisher as head coach, who brought assistants like Mike Waufle and Chuck Cecil with him to St. Louis. The Rams also added scrappy cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive tackle Kendall Langford, who is a freaking house. Drafting run-stuffing DT Michael Brockers to play alongside Langford was also big and former Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins could prove to be worth the gamble that new GM Les Snead took in the second round. Keep an eye on William Hayes, too. He was limited last year because of a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 1 but he’s someone that could potentially see his playing time increase because he’s he can play the run and provide some pressure. The Rams screwed the pooch by not taking an outside linebacker in the second round, but all in all they had a productive offseason and should be improved next year.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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DeMarcus Ware chats with The Scores Report

Even the most feared pass-rushers in the NFL can learn a thing or two about their performance from a scientific standpoint. DeMarcus Ware (pictured above with NFL prospect Cameron Heyward) has made a living feasting on quarterbacks but that doesn’t mean he stops learning off the field. At the Super Bowl this year in Dallas, DeMarcus paired with Gatorade in order to work with their scientists at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI). He was given the opportunity to learn about his specific sports’ nutrition routine, so that he can fuel maximum performance on the field. The Scores Report was fortunate enough to catch up with DeMarcus while he was at the GSSI, so he could fill us in on what the process was like and what he learned from his testing. We also asked him for his take on Wade Phillips, on what the Cowboys need to do to reach the Super Bowl next year and on the rising success of the 3-4 defense. Of course, we couldn’t let him go without getting his Super Bowl pick as well.

DeMarcus Ware: Hello?

The Scores Report: Hey DeMarcus! How are you, man?

DW: Good! How are you?

TSR: Doing well. So you’re in Dallas?

DW: Yes sir.

TSR: You having fun or what?

DW: Yeah, I’m having a great time at radio row.

TSR: Good stuff. Talk to me about Gatorade and what you’re doing with them for the Super Bowl.

DW: You know, everybody always thinks about sports drinks as something that just quenches your thirst. But they’ve taken it to the next level and they’ve gotten this lab to where it’s built for nutrition, fitness and really helping you with your performance. Gatorade has pre-drinks, post-drinks and you know, drinks in between workouts that helps you with peek performance.

TSR: I had the opportunity to speak with Maurice Jones-Drew last year about the Gatorade science lab and he loved his experience. Have you been able to jump on the treadmill or done anything like that yet?

Read the rest of this entry »

Can the Vikings slow down the Cowboys’ pass rush?

If Brett Favre watched how the Cowboys’ defense dismantled Donovan McNabb and the Eagles’ offense last Saturday, then he probably didn’t get much sleep that night.

For as good as the Vikings’ offense has been this season, the offensive line hasn’t played well in weeks. That doesn’t bode well for Minnesota given that its O-line has the unenviable task of trying to slow down a Dallas pass-rush that has emerged as a dangerous unit over the last month of the season.

In the Cowboys’ 34-14 trouncing of the Eagles last Saturday, DeMarcus Ware sacked McNabb twice and harassed him on several other occasions. It was Ware’s fourth multi-sack game of the season and it no doubt sent a message to Brad Childress that he better figure out a way to protect his quarterback this weekend.

One way to slow down an aggressive pass rush is to run the ball straight at it. Fortunately for the Vikings, they have a back in Adrian Peterson that excels running between the tackles and attacking the edge of a defense. But the problem is that Childress got away from his balanced attack over the course of the season and the Vikings suffered a little down the stretch. If Minnesota believes it can beat Dallas by throwing the ball early and often, then a second-round knockout is inevitable for the Vikings.

It’ll be interesting to see if Childress commits to running the ball with AP this weekend in order to attack the Cowboys’ excellent pass-rush. If he doesn’t, then he and Favre might be in store for a long day.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

NFL Playoff Preview: Saturday games

New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals
4:30 pm ET
TV—NBC

Last Sunday night, the Jets closed out the actual regular season history of “old” Giants Stadium the way the Giants wanted to the week before, turning a win-and-in situation into a rout against the Bengals, 37-0. The Jets and their # 1 pass defense held the Bengals to zero passing yards for the game. That’s right, ZERO passing yards. That’s not likely to happen again today, when the Jets visit the Bengals for a rematch that will determine who goes home and who moves on to the divisional round of the playoffs. Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis held RB Cedric Benson out of the Week 17 game, and only let QB Carson Palmer play a few series before letting some bearded guy named J.T. O’Sullivan take over. Lewis didn’t want to show too much, but what he may have shown in the process was that his team is fading fast and may have won games early in the season with smoke and mirrors. The Bengals’ defense is also solid, ranked #7 against the rush and #6 against the pass, but if they allow Thomas Jones and the Jets’ running game to control the clock again, this could very well be another dominant performance by the Jets. And don’t forget the way Jets’ all-world CB Darrelle Revis shut down WR Chad Ochocinco on the field and then on Twitter. The hotter Jets should prevail again, but either way, this is a game featuring two of the NFL’s best defenses, so it’s likely to be ultimately determined by who makes the least mistakes.
THE PICK: JETS 17, BENGALS 13

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
8:00 pm ET
TV—NBC

For as surprising as the Jets’ thrashing of the Bengals was last weekend, the fact that the Cowboys shut out the Eagles may have been the biggest surprise of Week 17. Sure, the Cowboys have been on a roll since handing the Saints their first loss of the season a few weeks back, and haven’t given up a point since then. But the Eagles had won six in a row and were (insert cheesy line here like “flying high” or “soaring”). Despite having Brian Westbrook back, the Eagles have fallen to 22nd in the NFL in rushing offense and have been living by the big pass play most of the season, with second year WR DeSean Jackson changing games by himself on offense and special teams. The Cowboys, however, have beaten the Eagles twice this season, and their only losses came to the Giants twice (in games that could have gone either way), Denver, Green Bay and San Diego. They can run the ball (7th overall), pass with Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jason Witten (6th overall) and they can stop the run (4th overall). The only blemish for the Cowboys is they are prone to big pass plays, but they seem to have remedied that recently, and with DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge, Donovan McNabb has to have eyes on the side and back of his head at all times. This game will certainly be close, and maybe come down to a field goal. And in that case, would you rather have David Akers or (gulp) Shaun Suisham as your kicker? That’s what I thought.
THE PICK: EAGLES 27, COWBOYS 24

NFL Week 16 MVP Power Rankings

It’s been two weeks since we last did these rankings, and while not much has changed at the top, the teams our top two guys play for have been very shaky. In fact, Philip Rivers’ Chargers are the only one on a roll heading into the postseason.

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts—If Jim Caldwell benching his starting quarterback in the third quarter against the Jets proved anything, it’s that Manning is clearly and unequivocally valuable. His numbers (4405 yards, 33 TDs) don’t suck either.

2. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints—There is no question that Brees hasn’t been the same since DeMarcus Ware terrorized him two weeks ago in the Superdome. But the MVP race is not based on a few games and Brees still has a league-high 109.6 QB rating, and leads the NFL with 34 touchdown passes.

3. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans—This guy was racking up yards even before the Titans started winning games this season. And he’s so far ahead of the pack right now, with his sights on 2000 yards and even Eric Dickerson’s record of 2105 yards for a single season. That’s saying something.

4. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers—Yes, he has numbers — 4155 yards, 27 TDs to 9 picks, second to Brees in QB rating with 104.5. But here is why Rivers belongs on here—because all he does is win games.

5. Brett Favre, Minnesota Vikings—Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Favre brought his Vikings back from a 17-point deficit in chilly Chicago before losing in OT. His season has been and continues to be bordering on magical.

Honorable Mention— DeSean Jackson, Eagles; Aaron Rodgers, Packers; Cedric Benson, Bengals; Reggie Wayne, Colts; Jared Allen, Vikings; Vince Young, Titans; Elvis Dumervil, Broncos; Darren Sharper, Saints; Wes Welker, Patriots; Darrelle Revis, Jets; Andre Johnson, Texans; Dallas Clark, Colts; DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys

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