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September 2004

Football picksSeptember 1, 2004
2005 NFL Preview
Washington Redskins
By Dave Golokhov
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
Sports Central

Last Year
After Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, and Steve Spurrier, it seemed like Redskins owner Daniel Snyder could pull no more coaching surprises. Then came Joe Gibbs. After taking some time off from the NFL, the renowned Redskins coach returned to the new era, which was somewhat harsh to him in his first season. Running back Clinton Portis stumbled along with the rest of the offense leaving the Redskins desperate for points on several occasions. There's no question that Washington can hang their hat on the defense, but will the offense oblige this year?

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What We Learned From Last Year
The Redskins were one of the few teams stung by the injury bug in the preseason when tackle Jon Jansen ruptured his Achilles tendon and was lost for the year.

The loss was key as the offensive line was not exactly a strength and with no depth behind Jansen, a domino effect was felt.

Running back Clinton Portis, who was acquired in a summer blockbuster trade for cornerback Champ Bailey, was directly affected by the weak front. His yards per carry average was well above 5 in his first two seasons in Denver, but dropped to 3.8 last year.

The quarterback situation was a complete disaster as the one-two punch of Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey failed. Brunell was brought in as a veteran presence to start, but looked distraught in the offense. He started the first nine games of the season before Ramsey relieved him in the ninth game. His statistics were atrocious as he completed less than 50% of his passes.

Ramsey stepped into the lineup and started the remainder of the season, but his numbers were not much better. While his completion percentage was superior (62.1%), he threw too many interceptions and his interception percentage was one of the highest in the league.

If the quarterbacks and running backs struggle, you can only assume that the wide receivers would be next in line. Laveranues Coles was a big signing for the Redskins in the offseason, but his 90 receptions amassed only 950 yards and 1 touchdown. Prior to last season, he didn't average less than 14 yards per catch in any season.

While the Redskins labored to score on offense and only averaged 15 points per game (31st in NFL), the defense was a pleasant surprise.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his aggressive scheming led this squad to the third-best ranking in the NFL. Most people didn't expect the 29th-ranked defense to climb 26 spots after Champ Bailey was traded.

But Williams was a mastermind and proved that the personnel did not matter so much. The Redskins endured some nicks and cuts on the defensive side of the ball and have a fairly ordinary defensive line, but no matter who was out there, the Redskins were still difficult to score against. Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington only played in four games and even though he is the defense's best player, he was not overly missed.

The pressure was consistent as they collected 40 sacks, but there was no one dominant presence. Tackle Cornelius Griffin led the way with six.

Linebacker Marcus Washington proved to be a good fit for Williams' defense as he finished second on the team in tackles and sacks.

This was not simply a good defense, as the year progressed, they were downright dominant. Opponents were only converting 31% of third downs (second-best in NFL), averaging only 4.4 yards per play (also second-best), and Washington did not help them out with unintelligent penalties (fourth-best).

All of that led to only 28:41 of playing time for the defense, which kept them very fresh and gave the offense several opportunities.

The Redskins were only 3-6 under Brunell, but won three of their last six games under Ramsey with their losses coming by a combined 15 points. Maybe they have a little momentum on their side.

This Year
Last year, the secondary lost Champ Bailey and was adequately replaced by Shaun Springs. This year, the secondary loses Fred Smoot, but a sufficient replacement was found.

Walt Harris does not talk a lot of trash, he's not flashy or flamboyant, but he gets the job done. First-round pick Carlos Rogers will play the nickel role until he is ready to start. He has looked good in the preseason and has one of two Redskins interceptions.

Safety Sean Taylor is a growing force in the league and assuming his trial is postponed until after the season, will have a more integral part of the team. He is excellent in coverage and should emerge as the best playmaker in the secondary. At strong safety, two hard-hitters, Matt Bowen and Ryan Clark, will likely split time.

While the secondary as a whole might be improved if Taylor and Rogers can mature quickly, the linebacking corps also looks enhanced compared to last year's cast.

LaVar Arrington will reclaim his job from Warrick Holdman on the weak side, while Pro-Bowler Mike Peterson returns on the strong side. Little known Lemar Marshall will start in the middle. He was very steady last season finishing with 69 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 14 starts. Holdman is versatile and could still be a starter.

The defensive line for the Redskins remains a group of no-names, but their effectiveness is a testament to the defensive coaching staff.

Virtually the same crew returns led by Cornelius Griffin. He is roadblock in the running game and has the ability to get to the quarterback — he could have been a Pro Bowl selection last year. Phillip Daniels returns from an injury that limited him to only five games. The starting combination of him and Renaldo Wynn are exactly a dream come true, but both can generate some pressure.

Gregg Williams does an excellent job of putting players in the best position to succeed. He hides their weaknesses and exploits their strengths — very New England Patriot-like.

The defense should be advanced and it's hard to imagine the offense being any worse than last year.

With the addition of free agent center Casey Rabach, who is an upgrade over Corey Raymer, the Redskins do have an above-average offensive line. Tackle Chris Samuels is Pro Bowl-caliber and with a healthy Jon Jansen, the ready will be sturdy on the outside. Derrick Dockery is still a decent starter with lots of potential, while Randy Thomas is very reliable.

This unit turns from a weakness to a strength and they only permitted five sacks in four preseason games. Testing the depth is not suggested.

Patrick Ramsey was immediately named the starting quarterback at the end of last season, but he is skating on thin ice. He has been hot and cold in the four exhibition games with two touchdowns and four interceptions. He should be a decent starter if the running game can flourish behind him.

Mark Brunell has looked rejuvenated in the offseason, but he will likely be an emergency starter. If Ramsey struggles and the team falls out of contention, first-round pick Jason Campbell will get into the lineup.

Some questioned whether trading so many draft picks for Jason Campbell was a good decision, but the Redskins feel they are pretty much a complete team. With a stout defense, a strong offensive line, and a stud running back, it's hard to argue with them. With a high-quality quarterback, this is easily a playoff team in the NFC.

The Redskins traded Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner in the offseason, which seems to have left them somewhat short of talent. Santana Moss is a speedy wideout and ex-New England Patriot David Patten is more of the same. Both can get downfield without any problems, but they are easily pushed around. Kevin Dyson is the team's only receiver over six feet of height, so red zone situations could be problematic.

With a strong offensive line, the Redskins should be at least a win or two better, but their playoff hopes rely on Patrick Ramsey's ability to limit his mistakes and take care of the football.

Over/Under: 7.5
Trusting Patrick Ramsey with your money is not a good idea, but if the Redskins can heavily emphasize Clinton Portis and keep the attention off of Ramsey, it may not necessarily be a bad idea, either. With four good coaches manning four improved teams, there are no easy wins in the NFC East. They play: CHI, SEA, @DEN, @KC, SF, @TB, OAK, SD, @STL, and @ARZ.

Fantasy Sleeper
It is never advisable to draft players from a lackadaisical offense, but keep in mind that somebody has to make plays. Santana Moss played in a conservative offense under Paul Hackett in New York, but still managed just under 2,000 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns in the past two seasons. He should see the bulk of the passes in Washington.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2004
2005 NFL Preview
Tennessee Titans
By Dave Golokhov
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
Sports Central

Last Year
A 12-4 record, a co-MVP at quarterback, and an appearance in the second-round of the playoffs turned to dust in the 2004 season as the Tennessee Titans experienced one of the stiffest declines among NFL teams. First, the salary cap and then injuries ravaged the already-limited talent pool and the Titans only managed to win five games. Even though the Titans are one of the better-coached teams and are always wise in the draft, this looks like a rebuilding season.

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What We Learned From Last Year
The season started okay for the Titans as they won their opener in Miami. Then they ran into a streak of difficult opponents.

First Indianapolis, then Jacksonville, followed by a trip to San Diego, all of which resulted in losses. They would only win two more times before their Week 9 bye and by that time injuries started to mount.

Guard Zach Piller, wide receiver Tyrone Calico, and linebacker Peter Sirmon were already lost for the year, quarterback Steve McNair and running back Chris Brown missed a few games early in the season and were not in the lineup after Week 12, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth only played 10 games, safety Lance Schulters played in only three games, and strong safety Tank Williams played in only nine.

Team chemistry was an obvious problem not because the players did not get along, but because each week, there were new faces in new places.

Although the season turned out to be a wash, one positive that did come from last year was the fact that so many young players stepped into the lineup and in essence, fast-tracked their development.

Quarterback Billy Volek and wide receiver Drew Bennett were Tennessee's brightest stars on the offense and both surfaced as viable starters. With the lack of a capable running game late in the season, combined with a deteriorated defense, the Titans were playing from behind frequently and depended on the Volek/Bennett connection to keep them in games.

Bennett went through one superhuman stretch of three games where he tallied 517 yards and eight touchdowns, all with Volek as his quarterback.

Chris Brown was the only other starter to be uncovered in the offense as he rushed for his first 1,000-yard season, but he wasn't around to be effective all season.

On defense, emerging starters included Randy Starks, Brad Kassell, and Lamont Thompson. Starks had 4.5 sacks which ranked fifth among rookies, but that is a pretty good number for any tackle — young or seasoned. Kassell stepped into the lineup after Rocky Calmus was hurt and finished second on the team in tackles (101) and Thompson was second on the team with four interceptions. Tank Williams was also on his way to his best season before his season was cut short due to an injury.

On the defensive line, the Titans were looking for some of their young defensive ends to progress, but no one really stood out. Antwan Odom wore down as the season progressed while Travis LaBoy showed flashes, but was inconsistent. The two combined for 5.5 sacks, which is respectable for rookies. Albert Haynesworth gave indications that he has a very bright future in front of him, but for a second consecutive season, he did not play more than 12 games.

Head coach Jeff Fisher has weaved his magic before, but even the most optimistic optimists can't see him taking this team to the playoffs.

This Year
When you don't have a lot of free money under the salary cap, the best idea is to start a youth movement.

The Titans have employed that exact strategy and will depend on numerous young bodies to mature quickly.

They have 10 draft picks coming in and many will be depended on right away. The top two selections, cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and tackle Michael Roos, will start immediately.

The expectations are high for Jones, who will start with third-year back Andre Woolfolk. Both are unproven in prime-time roles and will have to replace last year's starters, Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson. Tony Beckham will be the primary backup and with his three years of experience in the NFL, he would be considered the veteran. Woolfolk and Jones are talented enough to be premier starters in the league, but they are not at that level yet.

Safeties Tank Williams and Lamont Thompson are more hardened as they are entering their fourth years. They are a reliable tandem and will need to pick up the slack while the corners get their feet wet.

The starting linebackers, Peter Sirmon, Brad Kassell, and Keith Bulluck are the heart of the defense. Bulluck is a sideline-to-sideline force and fires up the team with aggressive plays. Kassell is a sure-tackler and Sirmon's instincts were sorely missed last season.

On the line, Randy Starks and Albert Haynesworth have looked like a first-rate tandem, but the key is for Haynesworth to stay healthy. This combination has been dominant in the preseason. Backup Rien Long could start and is a solid pass-rusher. The end positions is where the questions lie.

There are a slew of young prospects, but someone needs to emerge. Antwan Odom is ready to burst and has had an excellent preseason with three sacks and a forced fumble. Bo Schobel and Travis LaBoy were also drafted last year and will compete for the other starting job, but have been up and down. Kyle Vanden Bosch is an adequate veteran with a non-stop motor and a strong work ethic. He will step in if the youth cannot handle the workload.

The offense feigns the same characteristics as the defense: very young and stocked with potential. The main difference is that some of that potential has fully grown.

Quarterback Steve McNair is the leader of the team and is rejuvenated mostly in part to a new offensive coordinator. Norm Chow was the brain behind the USC offense. Chow has sped up the offense with faster play-calling. He plans to use the hurry-up offense frequently to wear down opponents. McNair should be able to get to the line quickly to read the defense and has the power to audible much more than he did before.

On-lookers have wondered about the offensive line, but they have protected McNair very well in the preseason. Brad Hopkins, Zach Piller, Justin Hartwig, and Benji Olson have all impressed. McNair has released the ball very quickly which has also helped.

Chris Brown is one of the league's top running backs, but he can't seem to stay healthy. The acquisition of Travis Henry ensures the Titans a consistent running game even if Brown misses some time. Henry is much more durable and is a better running back in short-yardage situations.

McNair will get re-acquainted with Drew Bennett, who blossomed significantly with Volek as his passer. Bennett will see much more coverage now that he is the unquestioned number one. Tyrone Calico will start opposite of him and is a gifted athlete. He has the ability to be a game-breaker, but is not there yet. There is a lineup of young talent behind him with rookies Brandon Jones (third round), Courtney Roby (third round), and Roydell Williams (fourth round). All three have impressive in the exhibition games, but Williams may be the fastest to develop coming for a pro-style offense from Tulane.

The Titans are hoping that Ben Troupe can breakout since he has all the tools to be downfield threat. He has a lot of potential, while Erron Kinney is a blue-collar guy.

The Titans are depending on a large amount of young players to be successful this year, but stranger things have happened. They are more likely to be more dangerous in the second half of the season and especially next year.

Over/Under: 6.5
Tennessee has to deal with St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Oakland in the first eight weeks of the season, which does not bode well for their young secondary. Nonetheless, as this team grows, this is going to be a difficult team to defeat in the second half of the season. They play: @PIT, BAL, @STL, CIN, @ARZ, OAK, @CLE, SF, SEA, and @MIA.

Fantasy Sleeper
Steve McNair was the NFL's co-MVP in 2003 where he posted 24 touchdowns and 3,215 yards in 14 games. With Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator, McNair will emerge as a solid number two fantasy quarterback. Keep in mind that he is still a threat on the ground and accounts for roughly one rushing touchdown every three games.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2004
2005 NFL Preview
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
By Dave Golokhov
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
Sports Central

Last Year
After the championship season was followed up by only seven wins, Tampa Bay was hoping that the bleeding would stop, but last season only produced five victories. The defense remained stout, but the offense was putrid as quarterback Brad Johnson struggled and the running game was absent. After the team had only one win in the first six weeks, they decided to chalk it up as a rebuilding season, so now we'll see what kind of infrastructure they really have.

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What We Learned From Last Year
The Buccaneers were one of the teams on the short end of the salary cap stick heading into last season and had to make some key financial decisions.

One of the faces of the franchises, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, signed with Oakland. Wide receiver Keenan McCardell, the team's most productive wideout in 2003, held out for a contract and was traded midseason.

Without much spending cash, the Bucs were limited the Bucs in free agency.

On offense, Brad Johnson labored in the beginning of the season. His statistics were not poor, but he was unable to move the offense consistently enough. In fairness, he did not have much support.

Running the ball was an arduous task all season long. Charlie Garner tore his knee and Michael Pittman continued to prove he is nothing more than a third-down back.

Pittman led the team in rushing, but overall, the rushing offense finished with a 29th rank. The burden fell on the passing game and after a brief game of musical chairs between Brad Johnson and Chris Simms, Jon Gruden seemed to uncover a gem in Brian Griese.

He did have a knack for untimely interceptions, but still performed pretty well in his first season in Tampa Bay. He completed nearly 70% of his passes and had a rating of 97.5.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton came to light once the situation at quarterback was settled and caught 80 passes in his rookie year. Joey Galloway, who was acquired in a trade for Keyshawn Johnson, flashed his blazing speed at times, but was hindered by a groin injury.

The offensive line was the biggest impediment as the group was old and ineffective. To name some names, Todd Steussie, Derrick Deese, and Matt Stinchcomb were less than impressive.

The defense remained top-notch under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and kept the Buccaneers in all of their football games. Their average margin of defeat was just over seven points, which is definitely inspiring for a 5-11 team. The total defense was ranked fifth, which marked the 10th season that they finished in the top 10.

But even so, this defense had much room for improvement. Tackle Anthony McFarland was supposed to make the loss of Warren Sapp unnoticeable, but he only played in eight games. Behind him, Ellis Wyms only played six. The loss of both players factored greatly in the run defense permitting 123.3 rushing yards per game.

On the ends, Simeon Rice and Greg Spires were a formidable duo who combined for 20 sacks. Spires' emergence meant less attention for Rice. Derrick Brooks anchored the linebackers and remained as one of the top outside linebackers in the league. He led the team in tackles along with Shelton Quarles.

The secondary was very underrated as Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly were often overlooked as a top-flight duo, but they clearly were. Rookie Will Allen also showed some promise.

The defense held its end of the bargain, but the offense was visibly old and slow. The good news is that they have hit rock-bottom and are now back on the way up.

This Year
All eyes will be on Carnell "Cadillac" Williams as the rookie running back will hold the keys to much of the offense's success.

Jon Gruden is a bright offensive mind and if he is confident in the kid, there shouldn't be much doubt amongst anyone else.

The Bucs have ranked in the basement of the NFL in rushing yards the past two seasons and the addition of Williams should change that. Michael Pittman also stands to benefit since he won't be overused. Mike Alstott doesn't seem to fit into the plans anymore.

Brian Griese returns as the team's main quarterback, but he needs to cut down the ill-timed interceptions. Gruden has worked magic with veteran signal-callers like Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson before, so look for Griese to be the next in line.

Michael Clayton figures to be the top target, but he'll have some company this year. Joey Galloway still has great deep speed, but the team needs him to stay healthy so that Clayton and veteran Ike Hilliard have room underneath. Galloway is known to be injury-prone, though. If he gets hurt, there are no downfield threats.

Tight ends Anthony Becht and Alex Smith provide the Bucs with an excellent one-two punch. Becht is reliable for short routes and is an above-average run-blocker, while Smith possesses the separating speed. Two-tight end sets could cause some problems for opponents.

But while all the extremities are sexy, the guts of the offense are unattractive. The offensive line is still a weakness.

The interior youth movement has begun and it is about time. Anthony Davis, who is in his second-year, will start at left tackle, and rookies Dan Buenning and Chris Colmer will push for time and quite possibly start at right guard and right tackle. The talent is now present, but the youth will take time to develop. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker may finally break that streak of inconsistency since this is a contract year.

As a whole, the offense looks much improved, but a shaky offensive line could throw a big kink into the plans. The line on defense will also be a crucial part of any success.

Anthony McFarland needs to play a full 16 games for the Bucs, something he has only done twice in his six seasons in the NFL.

He demands double-teams as a tackle and is a clog in the running game. Chris Hovan was signed as a free agent after the Minnesota Vikings lost interest in their former first-round pick. Monte Kiffin is a motivator and should reap some more talent out of him. With Ellis Wyms and rookie Anthony Bryant, the Bucs are fairly deep at this position.

Greg Spires and Simeon Rice return on the ends and would really profit from a full season from McFarland. Backup DeWayne White has shown a knack as a pass-rushing specialist.

Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Derrick Brooks, and Shelton Quarles all return to the defense, but are not spring chickens anymore. Kelly is the youngest at the age of 29. These four starters still have much to give, but age is will start to factor for Quarles (34) and Brooks (32).

Youth is on the way as second-round pick Barrett Ruud has been heavily praised ever since he was drafted. He is NFL-ready and will eventually take over for Quarles. Fourth-year linebacker Ryan Nece will start on the weak side.

Safeties Jermaine Phillips and Dexter Jackson are vital to the Bucs cover-two scheme and are a proficient tandem, even though they are not great in coverage.

The Bucs will need to find some consistency out of Matt Bryant or NFL Europe star Todd France, as place kicking was a liability for the team last year.

The top-rated defense appears to have improved and the offense will definitely be better, but it is uncertain how much. The Bucs now have a young corps of players to get excited about but the offensive line still causes too much anxiety to project a playoff appearance for this coming season.

Over/Under: 7
The schedule isn't exactly daunting for the Bucs, but there are no easy wins in their division. They play: @MIN, BUF, @GB, DET, @NYJ, MIA, @SF, WAS, CHI, and @NE. This may not be a playoff team, but this squad will not be a pushover at any point in the season.

Fantasy Sleeper
In 10 games started last season, Brian Griese threw for 2,632 yards and 20 touchdowns. Fleshed out over a full season, that is over 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns. Just remember what Jon Gruden has done with other veteran quarterbacks like Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2004
2005 NFL Preview
St. Louis Rams
By Dave Golokhov
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
Sports Central

Last Year
An up-and-down season finished up for St. Louis as they made a trip to the second round of the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks may have won the battle of winning the division, but the Rams won the war by defeating their neighboring rival three times, including a meeting in the postseason. Inconsistency, game management, and defense were persistent issues for the Rams, but those issues will always hinder the Rams from success while Mike Martz is the head coach.

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What We Learned From Last Year
There are not many coaches in the NFL that are as careless as Mike Martz and his slapdash demeanor has seeped into the on-field product of his team.

Last year, the Rams had enough talent to finish at least 10-6 in a conference that featured only four winning teams, yet somehow they slid to 8-8.

Not somehow, there are many reasons for it.

The carelessness is best displayed by the team's league-worst (-24) turnover ratio. While it is true that the defense was abysmal and only forced 15 takeaways, the offense was extremely reckless with the ball.

They finished fourth in the league in giveaways with 22 interceptions and 17 fumbles.

The Rams are in pretty dreadful company when you look at the teams that posted comparable numbers. For interceptions, only Miami and Dallas threw more and for fumbles, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay are the only teams who finished with more.

But those teams were all extremely offensively-challenged. Dallas, Miami, and Chicago didn't have starting quarterbacks while Cleveland and San Francisco were overall disasters.

Yes, Chris Chandler and his eight interceptions did inflate the interception total, but Mike Martz's mysterious obsession with passing the ball was also a factor.

The Rams had as many pass attempts as teams like Miami and Oakland, but the difference was that they actually had reliable running backs that could play. In other words, while the Dolphins and Raiders were forced into passing (because of the lack of a legitimate running back), the Rams just did it by choice.

And that is exactly the type of Mike Martz conundrum that no one will ever understand.

Last year, they drafted a running back in the first-round of the draft — which was a questionable move to begin with since Marshall Faulk was still on the roster and the defense was clearly talent-deficient — but let us just say, for argument's sake, that it was a good idea.

So now the Rams had two high-quality running backs.

Question: why the heck did they have the third-least amount of rushing attempts in the NFL last year?

Steven Jackson was NFL-ready from day one and did not need much time to mature. If the Rams wanted to pound him or Marshall Faulk all year long, they could have. Instead, they foolishly stuck with the pass.

In the last three years, the Rams have ranked 30th, 28th, and 32nd in rush attempts, which simply does not make sense.

The Rams were in the second round of the playoffs last year, but more of it had to do with luck than success. Aside from the Seattle Seahawks, who can't seem to defeat the Rams, St. Louis beat only one quality opponent.

They defeated San Francisco twice, Arizona, Tampa Bay, a Philadelphia team without any of its starters, and barely scraped by the New York Jets in Week 17.

That the Rams offensive line was one of the weakest in the NFL was a big misconception. Orlando Pace is a Pro Bowler, while Adam Timmerman and center Andy McCollum are good starters. But any offensive line will wear down if they are constantly in pass protection. Running the ball lets them grind the defense into the ground instead of forcing them to sustain for long periods of time.

Sure, the defense was a setback every game, but the key note to bring into the coming season was Martz's questionable emphasis on passing the ball and his incomprehensible choice to shy away from the run.

This Year
For a defense already short of talent, losing starting cornerback Jerametrius Butler to a season-ending injury is crippling. Last year's defense only had six interceptions and he had five of them.

Travis Fisher and DeJuan Groce will start, but both are not good enough to start. Fisher is undersized and is easily exploited by tall receivers. Groce is also short and can be beaten on deep routes. Kevin Garrett is more of the same. Rookie Ronald Bartell is the team's only cornerback taller than 5-10.

Last year, St. Louis was used as a treadmill by opposing running backs and will hope that that problem can be solved in-house. Damione Lewis, Ryan Pickett, and Jimmy Kennedy are all defensive tackles that were selected in the first-round who will be counted on.

Pickett had his best season last year and looked to be a good run-stuffer, but he came to training camp overweight this year and hurt his back. This is an injury that will linger and affect his play. Lewis has been a bust, which leaves Kennedy to hold the fort. He came on strong at the end of the season, but is still inconsistent. Nonetheless, the coaching staff is expecting big things from him.

Defensive end Leonard Little is still the only dominant player on the line and the team will look to Anthony Hargrove to replace Bryce Fisher in the role opposite of Little.

The linebackers have significantly improved as Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne are welcomed as free agents. With Pisa Tinoisamoa on the outside, this is definitely the strength of the defense. Claiborne is used to dealing with a lot of blockers, so he is a fit for this defense. Coakley, on the other hand, is not and is coming off of a rough season. There will be plenty of tackles to go around for this trio.

Adam Archuleta is a playmaker at strong safety, but free safety will be an Achilles heel.

Depth is a pressing concern everywhere. Although the defense is just as porous as last year's, we all know that the offense is the bread and butter.

The team spent their first-round pick on an offensive tackle to shore up the protection for Marc Bulger, which is an astute decision considering how much they throw the ball. Alex Barron is expected to start at right tackle, but he has been less than impressive in the preseason. Orlando Pace, Adam Timmerman, and Andy McCollum return and rookie Claude Terrell will start at left guard. Veteran guard Tom Nutten is back from retirement and versatile linemen Rex Tucker and Blaine Saipaia provide some decent depth.

Well, the line is sturdy and there is a young buck running back ready to blossom, but will Martz run the ball?

The wide receiving corps is as deep as it has been in a long time, so the signs don't exactly point to yes.

Dane Looker, Shaun McDonald, and Kevin Curtis are all good enough to exploit nickel and dime backs, which will tempt Martz call passing plays.

But if the Rams are to be a real contender, they will need to run the ball consistently, milk the clock, and keep their defense off the field.

Bulger looks to be in for a career year, but if the running game is not fully employed, then this team will not be successful.

Considering the defense ranked last in the league in turnovers a season ago and could equal that feat again, offensive turnovers need to be minimized.

Overall, this is just not a well-run football team outside of the passing game. The potential to be a serious competitor is there if they change their ways, but Martz is stubborn.

They better find a way to win on the road or 8-8 will be a good season.

Over/Under: 8.5
In the six road games that the Rams lost last year, their average margin of defeat was just under 20 points. Matter of fact, they have only won seven of their last 24 road games. The better teams in the league find a way to win away from their cozy confines and St. Louis needs to do the same if they plan on competing. They play: TEN, @NYG, @IND, NO, JAX, @HOU, WAS, @MIN, PHI, and @DAL.

Fantasy Sleeper
There's no question that Steven Jackson is going to be an NFL superstar, it just depends on how big of a workload Mike Martz will give him. Marshall Faulk has asked to be the backup, so don't worry about splitting carries. Jackson has a unique blend of power and speed and will run wild as defenses are loosened up by the passing game.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2004
2005 NFL Preview
Seattle Seahawks
By Dave Golokhov
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
Sports Central

Last Year
"We want the ball and we're going to score" were the famous last words of a Seattle Seahawks team who looked to be on the rise after a playoff appearance in 2003. Even though they carried over the momentum into 2004 by winning the first three games, their caliber noticeably declined as the season progressed. Division rival St. Louis had their number and triumphed over the Seahawks three times, including the final meeting in the playoffs. The seat is getting awfully warm for head coach Mike Holmgren, who needs to start producing results.

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What We Learned From Last Year
After week three of the NFL season, few teams looked as good as the Seahawks. They were 3-0 with two wins coming on the road and had outscored their first three opponents 65-13. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams were only 1-2.

With a bye week to prepare for the all-important matchup with the Rams, all signs pointed to a changing of the guards in the NFC West. With a 17-point lead with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks collapsed. The Rams sparked an improbable comeback, ending the Seahawks' 10-game home winning streak.

The loss seemingly changed the path of the Seahawks' season. Prior to it, they were a dangerous young team on the rise. After it, their self-esteem took a serious hit and they regressed into the form of another mediocre NFC team.

A young defense that had allowed only 13 points in the first three games was suddenly very permissive. They allowed 387 points the rest of the way (30 points per game).

Ray Rhodes was hired in 2003 to improve the 28th-ranked defense, but his impact has been minimal to this point as the squad ranked 26th last year (351.3 yards per game).

The addition of Bobby Taylor was supposed to provide an impact cornerback opposite of Marcus Trufant, but his 10 tackles and zero interceptions were of little assistance. In his defense, a chronic knee injury did slow him down.

An injury also took another veteran player from the defense as Pro Bowl talent Chad Brown took part in only seven games. The team's second-best linebacker, Anthony Simmons, also only played in only seven games.

Defensive tackle had been a weakness for years and the team addressed that with first-round pick Marcus Tubbs. He struggled in his first season. Starting defensive tackles Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore were only average, leaving the Seahawks fairly frail up the middle. They allowed opponents to rush for 126.7 yards per game.

Rookie Michael Boulware was a splendid surprise second-round pick for the Seahawks as he split time at linebacker and safety. He was second on the team with five interceptions and proved to be a vital playmaker.

The offense was led by Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander and was rarely the weak link for Seattle.

The main dilemma for the offense was production from the wide receivers as their well-publicized inconsistencies continued. Jerry Rice's work ethic didn't rub off and Koren Robinson turned into a distraction with his incessant off-field problems. Darrell Jackson did lead the way in yards and receptions, but he still dropped too many balls for a top receiver.

The Seahawks had the lowest third-down conversion percentage amongst teams who went to the playoffs and most of that had to do with a lack of sure hands.

Holmgren hasn't exactly failed as a coach in Seattle, but it is clear that the team has fallen short of expectations throughout most of his tenure. He will need a legitimate excuse for not making the second round of the playoffs if he plans to keep his job.

This Year
The Seattle Seahawks enter the 2005 season as the favorites to win the NFC West, but since the games are not played on paper, Seattle has a lot of proving to do.

First off, they will have to prove they can beat the St. Louis Rams.

St. Louis matches up very well against Seattle because their offense can score at will. Seattle does not get enough pressure on Marc Bulger and they don't have the cornerbacks to cover the three or four wide receiver sets.

To create pressure, the Seahawks will inert two new starters at defensive tackle to help curtail the time opposing quarterbacks have to throw.

Second-year player Marcus Tubbs has looked excellent in the preseason and will likely start with Chartric Darby at tackle. Although Darby is undersized, Tubbs is a wide load to deal with. The key here is that both have uncanny quickness — particularly Tubbs. When you have a tackle with that kind of speed, not only is he a force to reckon with in the running game, he will be a problem collapsing the pocket, as well.

There are wholesale changes on the defense with as many as seven new starters coming in.

Aside from Tubbs and Darby on the defensive line, Bryce Fisher will be a new face opposite of Grant Wistrom at the end position. Fisher will have to fill the shoes of Chike Okeafor, who left to Arizona. Wistrom and Fisher are reliable and should Tubbs continue to emerge, they won't have to face many double-teams.

Former stalwarts Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons are no longer on the Seahawks roster, but in fairness, both have been injury prone. Both were playmakers, but Simmons only played 27 games in the last three seasons while Brown only played in 29 contests.

Jamie Sharper, who was brought over from Houston, will man one of the outside positions and is far more durable. He has yet to miss a game in his career.

The other two starters will be D.D. Lewis and Niko Koutouvides with rookie Lofa Tatupu pushing for time. Lewis is raw player who is also injury-prone while Koutouvides, last year's fourth-round pick, is a sure-tackler. Tatupu is the future if he can bulk up. He has impeccable instincts.

The secondary as whole has more depth at cornerback, but neither Andre Dyson nor Kelly Herndon, two free agent pickups, are individually as good as the departed Ken Lucas. Dyson is an above-average second cornerback and Herndon is a solid nickel back — although he is too slow for the Rams receivers.

Free safety is a concern with Ken Hamlin is a little overaggressive at times, but strong safety Michael Boulware will carry the tandem. He looks like a future Pro Bowler.

One thing that doesn't make sense about the Seahawks offseason was the fact that they spent two of their first three draft selections on offense when the defense clearly needs the help.

With defensive tackle Mike Patterson and cornerback Marlin Jackson on the board in the first round, those players would have made more sense than an offensive lineman. Even if the Seahawks wanted to draft for the offense, wide receiver Roddy White would have made a lot of sense.

The offensive line is a very strong unit and is likely deeper than any in the league. Right tackle Floyd "Porkchop" Womack could be out for a prolonged period of time with a triceps injury and Seattle is one of the few teams that can handle a wound like that without much of a drop-off.

The Seahawks have cut ties with Koren Robinson and his nonstop troubles, but don't really have many options to step in his place. Bobby Engram, Jerome Pathon, and Joe Jurevicious are all better suited for third or fourth receiver roles. Peter Warrick is a playmaker, but he does his best work from the slot — the same position Engram plays.

They should give a phone call to the San Diego Chargers, who had a similar offense last season with a stud running back and no wide receivers. Maybe then they could figure out how to milk Jerramy Stevens' talents. He has had a good offseason, he is in a perfect environment to succeed and could really help this offense thrive, particularly on third downs.

Seattle has made a lot of defensive changes but the linebacking corps remains a glaring weakness while on offense, they still need uncover another target to who will team with Darrell Jackson. The combination of those two weaknesses and an improved division could be enough to keep this team inconsistent.

Over/Under: 8.5
We know the Seahawks can't beat the Rams and we know that the Cardinals and the 49ers will be improved. Seattle also has Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Atlanta on the agenda. Not the easiest of schedules. They play: @JAX, ATL, @WAS, DAL, NYG, @PHI, @TEN, IND, and @GB.

Fantasy Sleeper
Darrell Jackson is the only Seahawks receiver to ever post a 1,000-yard season, so its evident this team will be looking for options. Jerramy Stevens is a smooth athlete with great hands and might be the next Antonio Gates-type sleeper if gets his act together. Someone has to catch the ball.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2004
2005 NFL Preview
San Francisco 49ers
By Dave Golokhov
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission
Sports Central

Last Year
The 49ers were like the city of San Francisco prior to their 1849 gold rush: lacking personnel and poor. They only beat one opponent on their 16-game schedule and were the NFL's worst team. At least they won the first overall pick in the draft. With a new coaching staff and a new face for the franchise, the 49ers will try to change their direction and find gold once again.

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analysis for the 2005 season

What We Learned From Last Year
After the San Francisco 49ers kissed starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, starting wide receivers Terrell Owens and Tai Streets, and starting running back Garrison Hearst goodbye, it was pretty evident that the offense would not be nearly as productive.

Lo and behold, it wasn't.

Running back Kevan Barlow remained as the next best weapon, but labored tremendously in his first season as the full-time starter. He still finished as the team's leading rusher with 822 yards, but he only averaged 3.4 yards per carry.

He didn't regress — he just didn't have any help.

The offensive line was porous and weak. They permitted the second-most amount of sacks in the NFL (66), which should give you some indication.

With little pass-protection, the quarterbacks were next in line to suffer. Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Cody Pickett were only stopgap starters to begin with, but their production further diminished with little time to throw.

And when they did throw, they weren't exactly throwing to anyone dependable.

The receiving corps included Brandon Lloyd, who had previously only started one NFL game, Rashaun Woods, a rookie, Curtis Conway, an aging wideout, and Cedric Wilson.

Barlow was the only player worth caring about for defenses facing the 49ers last year and with no one to distract attention off of him, he wasn't able to be effective.

The Niners couldn't do anything right on offense. Passing the ball was an arduous task and running the ball was equally as challenging. Most of the talent was on the defensive side of the ball but averaging only 90.7 rushing yards per game and converting only 32.7% of their third downs put a massive burden on a defense that wasn't capable of carrying the weight.

Linebacker Julian Peterson was the anchor on defense until he was lost for the season after Week 5. Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich picked up the slack, combining for 202 tackles, but Peterson excels at pressuring the quarterback and once he was lost, sack totals took a hit. The defense finished with 29 and no player finished with more than six.

After starting cornerback Jason Webster departed in free agency to the Atlanta Falcons, second-year corner Mike Rumph slid into the fulltime role. He was awful in his rookie season and was not much better in year two of his career. Shawntae Spencer, another high draft pick, was decent in his rookie year, but also didn't offer much support for Ahmed Plummer.

At the backend, strong safety Tony Parrish provided a veteran presence, but had no competent partner at free safety.

With Andre Carter (although he suffered through a back injury) on the defensive line, the 49ers had a high-quality starter at each level of the defense. On talent alone, this defense was no worse than any other in its division, but without much support from the offense, the defense was not able to keep the ship afloat on its own.

The one good thing about being at the bottom is that there is only one place to go.

This Year
You don't always need a fortune-teller to foresee a disaster. For example: it is pretty evident that Nick Cannon's new movie, Underclassman, looks like a flop and that the San Francisco 49ers upcoming season is also going to be a fiasco.

While the 49ers may not be very successful in the win column in 2005, the point of the upcoming season is that this picture is still in production. It is not a finished product.

With the first selection in the draft, the 49ers picked up what they deemed to be the quarterback of the future. They figured that after Matt Leinart won another national championship and a Heisman Trophy that he would fall into their lap, but when he returned to USC, the Niners settled on the next best option, Utah's Alex Smith.

He projects to be a solid quarterback, but with the first overall pick, you would like to get an unquestioned superstar. With Tim Rattay still on the roster, a decent temporary solution, selecting Braylon Edwards and hoping for a shot at Leinart next year may have been a wiser solution.

Smith has a Peyton Manning-type brain, but the physical tools don't measure up. He is a very smart and avoids interceptions, but needs to improve his strength for the pro level.

The offensive line in front of him will be retooled and could be better than last year. The reason why that last "could" is not a "should" is because much banks on the return of center Jeremy Newberry. He is the anchor on the line, but is recovering from knee and back injuries that limited him to one game last year.

Jonas Jennings was signed to protect the quarterback's blind side at left tackle, which was a position heavily exploited last year. The arrival of Jennings means Kwame Harris can move back to the right side. Harris and guards Eric Heitman and Justin Smiley are up-and-comers. Second-round pick David Baas will challenge for playing time and provides some good depth.

If Mayberry plays, this line will perform significantly better than last year's.

That's great news for Barlow, who will once again be the emphasis of the offense. Rookie Frank Gore and sophomore Maurice Hicks will push him, but Barlow is the only back who offers the complete package. Gore is powerful, but lacks speed and Hicks is undersized.

Rattay has been named the interim started until Smith is ready and with more time to throw, the injury prone signal caller will be able to move the ball on offense.

Brandon Lloyd will serve as the team's top receiver and should be at his best in his third NFL season. He has slippery quickness and added 10 pounds of muscle to deal with the bigger cornerbacks. Aside from him, the receiving corps is pretty thin. Arnaz Battle will man the other starting role, but only has eight receptions to his credit and Rashaun Woods is lucky to still be on the roster.

Tight end Eric Johnson, the team's best offensive option and leading receiver last year, is recovering from a torn muscle in his right foot and may not be ready for the season-opener.

On defense, the 49ers will fully switch to the 3-4 scheme, which could work out well. The four starting linebackers are very underrated and with Jamie Winborn and Julian Peterson on the outside, the amount of sacks should increase. Both excel at getting to the quarterback. Andre Carter morphs into a linebacker and should be able to also provide some pressure.

Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich are blue-collar tacklers who don't transcend the standards of the position, but they get the job done.

What will throw a kink in the plans is the lack of the proper nose tackle. Anthony Adams is a little small to play the position, but the team is short on options. Fifth-round pick Ron Fields and Isaac Sopoaga might take some pressure off of Adams, but both are still raw.

Bryant Young and Marques Douglas will man the ends and both have experience in the 3-4. Douglas manned the end position in Baltimore when Mike Nolan was the defensive coordinator there.

In the secondary, the suspects remain the same, but a few minor shifts occurred. Shawntae Spencer will start in his second season next to Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph moves to free safety. Rumph has good instincts, but is a tad slow to play corner so this move should help him out.

Overall, this defense is above average and should play that way if the offense can support them. If they are forced to spend too much time on the field, and that is a likely possibility if the offense stumbles when Alex Smith becomes the starter, the Niners will be far from golden.

Over/Under: 4.5
The best team in the NFC West finished at 9-7 last year, so the 49ers are not exactly in the NFL's toughest division. Five wins would not be a possibility if Tim Rattay started every game, but with a rookie quarterback waiting in the wings, expect rookie mistakes when he gets the starts. They play: @PHI, DAL, IND, @WAS, TB, NYG, @CHI, @TEN, @JAX, and HOU.

Fantasy Sleeper
Taking a wide receiver on an offense with quarterback uncertainties is not necessarily ideal, but how much worse can
the quarterback situation get than last year? Well, it can get worse, but someone still has to catch the ball. Brandon Lloyd had 565 yards and six touchdowns in his first season as a starter and has caught 10 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in his first three preseason games. For someone who is being draft after the 100th pick in most drafts, he's worth a shot.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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