The Biggest Concern for Every NFL Team Heading into the 2014 Season

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IAugust 18, 2014

The Biggest Concern for Every NFL Team Heading into the 2014 Season

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    Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks don't appear to have any concerns.
    Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks don't appear to have any concerns.John Froschauer/Associated Press

    We are now basically halfway through the 2014 NFL preseason and we may be getting an idea of who could be pretty good this year.

    Still, the better gauge comes later this week, when the majority of teams take the field for the always-important third preseason tilt. We will see plenty of playing time when it comes to starters and perhaps a few positional battles settled as well.

    That being said, what’s the biggest concern for each team that is causing the coaching staff a few sleepless nights? We will take a closer look and give it our best shot. From breaking down each team’s offseason arrivals and departures and the impact of the 2014 draft class to seeing how each club has fared in the preseason (within reason) when it comes to rectifying these issues.

    For some squads, the matter may have been soundly addressed. For other teams, finding a true concern may require a little digging on our part. In any case, we’ll tell you if each club has made enough strides when it comes to its biggest worry.

    Let the excavating begin.

Arizona Cardinals: Inside Linebacker

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    This past season, new Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians helped this team double its win total from 2012, when the club lost 11 of its final 12 games and finished 5-11.

    One of the catalysts was a defense that finished sixth in the league in fewest yards allowed while giving up an NFL-low 84.4 yards per game on the ground.

    Part of that success came from inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, who finished first and third, respectively, on the team in tackles. Of course, Dansby is now with the Cleveland Browns and Washington will miss 2014 due to a league suspension.

    Second-year pro Kevin Minter is expected to team with veteran Larry Foote to shore up this area. The Cardinals had also signed Ernie Sims but he has since been released. Kent Somers and Zach Buchanan of AZCentral.com reported that the team added veteran linebacker Desmond Bishop late last week.

    Led by quarterback Carson Palmer and some key additions, the Arizona offense has high expectations this season. It may require even higher results if the team is to stay in the thick of the rugged NFC West.

Atlanta Falcons: Offensive Line

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    The best laid plans…

    This offseason, the Atlanta Falcons made getting better in the trenches on both sides of the ball a big priority.

    When you finish dead last in the NFL in rushing attempts and yards, next-to-last in the league in run defense and produce only 32 sacks, it makes perfect sense.

    Defensively, the team added Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai via free agency. On offense, the team added guard Jon Asamoah and drafted tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick three months ago. The latter would start his career on the right side.

    Now, Matthews may be the team’s starting left tackle. Veteran Sam Baker, who missed a dozen games in 2013, suffered a torn patellar tendon in Saturday’s night loss to the Houston Texans, as originally reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. Baker is expected to miss the season.

    Let the shuffling begin. Could Matthews make the switch to the left side? Could third-year pro Lamar Holmes inherit Baker’s spot? Injuries and philosophy were partly to blame for last season’s issues with the running game. But when it was all said and done, quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times.

    Stay tuned.

Baltimore Ravens: Running Game

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    So far, at least during the preseason, the Baltimore Ravens are showing that one of their biggest weaknesses of a year ago may not necessarily be an issue in 2014.

    Led by fourth-round rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro and third-year running back Bernard Pierce, John Harbaugh’s club has averaged 194 yards per game in preseason wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

    While the numbers are impressive, it’s also understandable that they be taken into context in terms of the preseason. More importantly, Pierce, Taliaferro and free-agent pickup Justin Forsett will be counted on to take up the early-season slack due to the two-game suspension of former Pro Bowler Ray Rice.

    A year ago, the Ravens ranked 30th in the league with 1,328 yards rushing, easily the lowest total in the brief history of the franchise that dates back to 1996. A refurbished line along with the addition of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak could indeed be the cures of what ailed this team in 2013.

    For now, however, we will take a watch-and-see approach when it comes to the regular season.

Buffalo Bills: Run Defense

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    In their final game of the 2013 season, head coach Doug Marrone watched his team allow a whopping 267 yards rushing on 43 attempts in a 34-20 loss to the New England Patriots.

    In three preseason games this summer, Doug Marrone’s team has allowed just 225 yards on the ground on 80 carries.

    Have the Buffalo Bills turned the corner when it comes to stopping the run? The team has finished in the bottom five of the league in rushing defense each of the past five seasons. And while it’s only summertime, it should be noted that even during preseason play the Bills have not given up fewer than 100 yards per game on the ground since 2008.

    Has the presence of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and free-agent additions such as middle linebacker Brandon Spikes made that big of an immediate difference? Only time will tell.

    Well, that and an encounter with Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (second in the NFL with 1,339 yards rushing in 2013) in Week 1 of the regular season.

Carolina Panthers: Offensive Line

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    A year ago, the Carolina Panthers ranked 26th in the league in total yards gained and 29th in the NFL in passing yards. Ron Rivera’s team, on its way to a 12-4 record and an NFC South title, finished just 18th in the league in scoring.

    There’s a lot to be said about the NFL’s second-ranked defense from 2013. The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks and allowed the second-fewest points in the league.

    What about the aforementioned other side of the football? In particular, an offensive line that has made several moves, including the retirement of 11-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross this offseason.

    Let’s not also forget (as if you could) that quarterback Cam Newton had ankle surgery in March. In his first preseason action of 2014 Sunday night vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, the Pro Bowl signal-caller looked rusty as expected, overthrowing his share of targets. Still, after the Panthers went three-and-out on each of their possessions in the first quarter, Newton would lead the team to a pair of second-quarter touchdown drives. Newton was sacked twice in the first half.

    From left to right, Carolina’s offensive front is tackle Byron Bell, guard Amini Silatolu, center Ryan Kalil, rookie guard Trai Turner and tackle Nate Chandler.

    We will get to know them a lot better for one reason or another in 2014.

Chicago Bears: Safety

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    As if the Chicago Bears needed more help on offense.

    With promising second-year wideout Marquess Wilson out for a bit and backup tight Zach Miller lost for the season, why not add a former Super Bowl MVP to quarterback Jay Cutler’s arsenal?

    Enter wide receiver Santonio Holmes, signed by the team over the weekend. Bleacher Report's Matt Fitzgerald has the lowdown on the newest face in the Windy City.

    That is all well and good. And the team’s much-maligned defense has added plenty of help up front with Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and rookie defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.

    But is head coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker content with half of their secondary? At safety, Chris Conte was recently activated from the physically unable to perform list. Free-agent addition Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen look like the starters for now. Offseason additions M.D. Jennings and veteran Adrian Wilson are among those in the mix.

    It will be interesting to see how it all sorts itself out.

Cincinnati Bengals: Center

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    The defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals are winless in two preseason game but it’s not because the team has looked bad. In fact, it’s been quite the contrary when it comes to Marvin Lewis’ club.

    Still, there is at least one issue at hand. According to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, the man getting the ball to suddenly very rich quarterback Andy Dalton has had some issues.

    Rookie center Russell Bodine, the team’s fourth-round pick from North Carolina, has struggled a bit. That means the call has gone out to versatile offensive lineman Mike Pollak, who’s preparing to be ready should Bodine be in a little over his head.

    Pun intended.

Cleveland Browns: Wide Receiver

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    The concern for the Cleveland Browns is the not knowing.

    The team has added veteran free agents such as Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins to their wide receiving corps.

    But will they have Pro Bowl wideout Josh Gordon, the league leader in receiving yards in 2013? According to the Associated Press (via SportingNews.com), the talented-but-troubled wideout met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this month. We are all still awaiting the results of those discussions.

    So while there is plenty of debate on just who will be head coach Mike Pettine’s starting quarterback in Week 1, no doubt Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel want to know who they will have available to throw the football to.

    And as it has been written and sung, the waiting is the hardest part.

Dallas Cowboys: Defense

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    You were expecting something else?

    Where to begin? This past season, the Dallas Cowboys finished dead last in the league in total defense, giving up the third-most yards in a season in NFL history.

    This offseason, the organization parted ways with DeMarcus Ware and his 117 career sacks. It watched Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher head to Washington and middle linebacker Sean Lee tear his ACL, meaning he’s out for 2014.

    Journeyman Justin Durant looks like the man in the middle in place of Lee. Performers such as outside linebackers Kyle Wilber and Bruce Carter will really have to step up. Free-agent pickup Henry Melton, via the Chicago Bears, hopes to help plug the middle.

    Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com gives us the latest on rookie defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Ben Gardner, both currently injured and one in worse shape than the other.

    Finally, Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com has the update on cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who will be suspended the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

    In a word…Ow.

Denver Broncos: Linebacker

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    While the Denver Broncos set numerous NFL records this past season when it came to scoring points and touchdowns, the team was less than scintillating when it came to the defensive side of the ball.

    Hence, 16 regular-season games involving the team last season produced a total of 1,005 points, 606 by the Broncos and 399 by the opposition.

    This offseason, via free agency, Denver added a defensive end (DeMarcus Ware), a cornerback (Aqib Talib) and a strong safety (T.J. Ward).

    What about the linebacking corps? Now that’s a good question.

    Talented Von Miller is back after a problem-plagued and injury-shortened season. Can he recapture his Pro Bowl form? Fellow outside linebacker Danny Trevathan led Denver with 129 tackles and four forced fumbles in 2013. However, according to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, he’ll be out six to eight weeks with a leg injury.

    As for the man in the middle, Nate Irving will get the nod. He made four starts and totaled 41 tackles a year ago.

    When it comes to this position, concern is certainly warranted when it comes to the defending AFC champions.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback

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    All football aficionados know that an excellent pass rush can make an average secondary look better than advertised.

    However, what to do if the team’s ability to get to the opposing quarterback doesn’t live up to billing?

    The Detroit Lions totaled 33 sacks last season, which helped translate into a mere 22 takeaways for the club.

    Even more disconcerting was the fact that the defense accounted for only 15 interceptions in 16 games, six of those from outside linebacker DeAndre Levy. All told, Lions cornerbacks picked off just two passes in 2013, both by veteran cornerback Chris Houston—who is no longer with the team.

    This year’s expected starters are second-year pro Darius Slay and veteran Rashean Mathis. The latter led the team with 16 passes defensed this past season but did not total an interception. The team also recently added veteran cornerback Drayton Florence.

    New head coach Jim Caldwell is going to need all the help he can get from this group, especially in the quarterback-loaded NFC North.

Green Bay Packers: Defense

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    A lot has happened since Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV.

    Most of it has occurred on the defensive side of the football. And a lot of it hasn’t been positive.

    In 2011, the Packers allowed the most passing yards in a season in league history. A year later, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit struggled down the stretch and in a pair of playoff games allowed a whopping 490 yards rushing—more than half of that to opposing quarterbacks.

    This past season, Green Bay struggled against both the run (25th in NFL) and pass (24th in NFL). Despite an 8-7-1 record and another NFC North title, they gave up more points (428) than they scored (417).

    Now the Pack is back looking to make it four straight NFC North wins and have added veteran defender Julius Peppers to the mix. He’s hoping to contribute in an outside linebacker/defensive line kind of role.

    We know what quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Co. are capable of on offense. But if the Green Bay defense doesn’t improve, the team will continue to fall short of another Super Bowl appearance.

Houston Texans: Quarterback

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    After a forgettable outing in their preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, the Houston Texans nearly flipped the script completely against the Atlanta Falcons.

    One week after falling to Bruce Arians’ club 32-0, the Texans rolled to a 32-7 victory over the visitors from Atlanta. After throwing a pair of interceptions in the loss to the Cards, journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed nine of his 12 pass attempts for 97 yards and a score in Saturday night’s win.

    Still, backup Case Keenum was up and down in the game, completing half of his 12 throws for 81 yards and an interception. Rookie Tom Savage’s line looked like an area code, 4-of-5 for eight yards.

    While it was a nice bounce-back effort from the club, the concern remains real at this position for Bill O’Brien’s team. And seeing three different Texans quarterbacks in 2014 may become the norm.

Indianapolis Colts: Running Game

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    Wonder why some refer to the Indianapolis Colts as a one-man show?

    That one man these days is talented quarterback Andrew Luck. The first overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft has thrown exactly 23 touchdown passes each of this first two seasons and also rushed for a combined nine scores in 32 regular-season games.

    But what about a little support from the ground attack? In 2012, the Colts ranked 22nd in the NFL in rushing offense. This past season, Chuck Pagano’s club was tied for 20th in the league in the same category.

    So what can we expect from much-maligned running back Trent Richardson and one-time New York Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI hero Ahmad Bradshaw? The Colts will once again be missing once-promising Vick Ballard, out for the season.

    Yes, Luck and Co. have won 11 regular-season games each of the last two seasons. But if they expect to win a few more playoff contests, they had better develop a little more balance to help their quarterback and that defensive unit of theirs.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver

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    Blake Bortles is not expected to see the field in the regular season in 2014, but there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback.

    Veteran signal-caller Chad Henne will look to build on a strong finish from a year ago, but who exactly will he be throwing the football to? This offseason, injuries and other issues have limited the availability of the team’s wide receivers.

    Cecil Shorts, the team leader in catches in 2013, and second-year pro Ace Sanders were slated to be the starting wideouts but the latter will miss the first four games due to a league suspension. On the other hand, via Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union, Shorts is getting ready to get back on the field,

    The Jaguars used a pair of second-round picks this year on wideouts Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. But the second of those two players has had problems staying on the field due to injuries.

    Keep in mind that tight end Marcedes Lewis led the team with four touchdown grabs a year ago and that new running back Toby Gerhart can catch the ball as well.

    Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make you feel better about this group…at least not yet.

Kansas City Chiefs: Cornerback

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    If it is true that you can have addition by subtraction, then it should be a big year for the Kansas City Chiefs.

    After a strong start last season during which Andy Reid’s club rolled to a 9-0 start, the team’s defense took a wrong turn. All told, Kansas City allowed 34 offensive touchdowns in 16 regular-season games, not an awful performance at first glance.

    But look at what happened to Reid’s team, especially when it came to stopping the pass. After allowing just 10 touchdown passes in their first 10 contests in 2013, Chiefs defenders allowed 15 scores through the air in the final six weeks. Then in the midst of blowing a 28-point third-quarter lead to the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs, Kansas City allowed four more touchdown passes.

    There is no more Brandon Flowers. The Pro Bowler was released this offseason and latched on with the San Diego Chargers. These days, the names atop the depth chart (per Ourlads.com) are Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker. The Chiefs still have veteran Sean Smith on the roster, added Chris Owens via free agency and drafted Phillip Gaines in the third round.

    How will it all play out in Week 1 for Reid’s club? Hopefully a lot better than the closing months of 2013.

Miami Dolphins: Running Back

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    Face it, when you see 26 for 46, you are thinking quarterback.

    Yes, the Miami Dolphins edged the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Saturday night. But Joe Philbin’s club managed a mere 46 yards rushing on just 26 attempts.

    The good news, as John Evenson of CBS12.com points out, is that free-agent addition Knowshon Moreno is on the practice field. The former Denver Broncos running back had been sidelined after surgery but is ready to give it a go. Moreno did not play vs. the Bucs.

    To be fair, a problem-plagued offensive front was part of the problem for a Miami running attack that finished 26th in the NFL in yards gained this past season. Still, the team averaged a mere 90 yards per game on the ground and ran for only eight touchdowns.

    Moreno, Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee all figures to get their hands on the ball in 2014. Hopefully it will be a lot more often that the team managed to do the previous season.

Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback

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    Yes, the Minnesota Vikings gave up a league-high 480 points in 2013.

    Yes, the Vikings allowed the second-most total yards in the league and only the Philadelphia Eagles permitted more yards through the air.

    Yes, Minnesota’s defensive unit allowed 51 touchdowns this past season, surpassed only by the Washington Redskins (52).

    And yes, the biggest concern for new head coach Mike Zimmer continues to be quarterback, regardless of who wins the starting job.

    Both Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater looked pretty good in the team’s weekend win over the Arizona Cardinals. It appears that the veteran still has the edge over the rookie when it comes to opening at St. Louis in Week 1 of the regular season.

    But let’s not assume this is a done deal just yet. And if it is indeed Cassel, he’s been inconsistent at best throughout his NFL career.

    Minnesota started three different quarterbacks in 2013. No doubt Zimmer would like to make that number just one this season.

New England Patriots: Defensive Tackle

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    Sometimes when you are evaluating the New England Patriots, you feel like you are nitpicking.

    That was not the case in 2013, when the team put together a new-look receiving corps. The lack of rapport with Tom Brady and his wideouts (save for Julian Edelman) was a big reason the star quarterback saw his numbers drop.

    Of course, there are lots of ways to put points on the board. Even though Brady threw just 25 touchdown passes—his fewest in a full season since 2006—only the Denver Broncos (606) and Chicago Bears (445) scored more points than Bill Belichick’s club this past season.

    So the emphasis here is on defensive tackle. Veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are both entering their 11th seasons and coming off injuries. The Pats drafted Dominique Easley in the first round and he should hopefully help (non-football injury list) when available. Defensive tackle Chris Jones filled in last year and did contribute six sacks, but the club had its issues against the run, complicated by the injury to linebacker Jerod Mayo.

    No one is forecasting doom and gloom for Wilfork, Kelly and Co. But we will keep our eyes open.

New Orleans Saints: Cornerback

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    The New Orleans Saints made great strides on the defensive side of the football in 2013.

    But that doesn’t mean all is well in the Crescent City as the 2014 regular season approaches.

    Evan Woodbery of NOLA.com reported that standout cornerback Keenan Lewis was injured in Friday night’s win over the Tennessee Titans. We will eventually find out just how injured and when he is able to return.

    What about veteran Champ Bailey, who has been sidelined in August? Woodbery also reports that the 15-year pro is expected back “sooner than later.”

    2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson, 2012 fifth-rounder Corey White and rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste are in the mix and we hope to see Lewis and Bailey soon. Teamed with second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro and free-agent pick up Jairus Byrd, they could make for a potent combination at safety. If and when healthy this could be quite the foursome in the secondary.

    It is the "if" and "when" that could be the issue.

New York Giants: Offensive Line

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    No mincing of words here.

    Instead, we will let Jordan Raanan of NJ.com do the talking.

    The writer made several observations following last Saturday night’s preseason tilt with the Indianapolis Colts. Here is just a smattering:

    The Giants offensive line looked very much like last year, littered with holes and incompetence. They were a complete liability. This may be the most disconcerting aspect of Saturday night's debacle. The line hasn't shown much progress in the preseason, and with (left tackle Will) Beatty back they’re out of excuses, even if this is a new offense.

    Conversely, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com tells us that head coach Tom Coughlin was less than happy with his team although the club would rally for a 27-26 win:

    We are realists, and looking at what looked to be a very poor performance in the first half with the ones (starters) that didn't really get a lot better once the 2s came in. It wasn't impressive at all. We didn't get a whole lot done. There's no production. There's nothing to look at from a production standpoint.

    Any offense starts with the men up front. The question here is when is the Giants offensive line going to get started?

New York Jets: Cornerback

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    There has been a preoccupation with the New York Jets’ starting quarterback situation that’s hard to figure. It would seemingly be an upset if second-year pro Geno Smith didn’t open the regular season against the Oakland Raiders.

    But if you think that remains an issue, what about the team’s prospects at cornerback?

    Via Ben Shpigel of The New York Times, Rex Ryan’s secondary had a tough night Saturday night in Cincinnati. In some ways, it was to be expected with cornerbacks Dee Milliner and rookie Dexter McDougle (gone for the season) on the shelf and free-agent addition Dimitri Patterson not playing. Against the Bengals, Ryan started safety Antonio Allen and Ellis Lankster at cornerback.

    It’s worth noting that Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton completed all eight of his passes for 144 yards and a touchdown this past weekend.

    So any chance Michael Vick can play a little cornerback?

Oakland Raiders: Quarterback

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    Two games into the 2014 preseason and it has been a rough few weeks for veteran quarterback Matt Schaub and now even rougher for rookie Derek Carr, the second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders three months ago.

    Josh Dubow of The Sacramento Bee tells us that the rookie signal-caller suffered a concussion in the team’s come-from-behind 27-26 win over the Detroit Lions on Friday night.

    Before he left the game, Carr completed nine of his 16 throws for 109 yards and a score.

    Back to Schaub, who was picked off in the first quarter vs. Detroit and has looked less than sensational in two preseason games. This offseason, the Raiders gave up a sixth-round draft choice to get the veteran quarterback from the Houston Texans.

    So far, Schaub has looked closer to the player who struggled in 2013 and less like a former two-time Pro Bowler.

    There’s still time to get things straightened out. But are we getting ready to see the Raiders start at least two quarterbacks for the 12th straight year?

Philadelphia Eagles: Defense

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    Two weeks into the preseason and the Philadelphia Eagles defense has been for the Birds.

    After giving up 34 points and 491 total yards in the Windy City to the Chicago Bears, defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ unit improved somewhat a week later at Foxborough, allowing just 476 total yards in a 42-35 setback.

    With all the offensive firepower in the world, the defending NFC East champions won’t be going very far if they aren’t prepared to stop anyone.

    In 2013, Chip Kelly’s club allowed the most passing yards in the league. And a defensive unit that was ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing yards gave up 185 yards on the ground in the playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.

    Free-agent additions such as free safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll are expected to help. So is being in Davis’ system for a second straight year.

    We shall see.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Defensive Line

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    It’s been a pretty good offseason for a club that is looking to get out of its recent funk of consecutive 8-8 seasons.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers may have found themselves a star in rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had a big night against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday at Heinz Field. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds led the team with eight sacks in 2013. Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu is still…Troy Polamalu and Pittsburgh’s secondary rebounded after a tough start a year ago.

    What about the defensive front? It wasn’t that long ago that ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel and nose tackle Casey Hampton were getting the job done. These days, former first-round pick Cameron Heyward continues to progress as a player. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has shown some flashes and the team added Cam Thomas via free agency.

    Pittsburgh also drafted defensive end Stephon Tuitt in May and he has certainly opened some eyes.

    So is the fact that the Steelers defense was just 21st in the league against the run in 2013.

St. Louis Rams: Offensive Line

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    Let us be a little specific.

    The long and short of the problems facing the offensive line of the St. Louis Rams more surrounds the left side of this unit rather than the other three starters.

    Veteran Scott Wells mans the center spot, versatile Rodger Saffold is at right guard and intriguing Joe Barksdale is at right tackle.

    As for the aforementioned left side, six-year pro Jake Long hopes to get back on the field soon after tearing his ACL and MCL late last season. Head coach Jeff Fisher said he expects the former Pro Bowler to see action this coming week vs. the Cleveland Browns, according to Joe Lyons of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    Meanwhile, 2014 first-round pick Greg Robinson is trying to make the adjustment from college tackle to pro left guard.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of protection quarterback Sam Bradford sees in the coming weeks.

San Diego Chargers: Cornerback

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    If the San Diego Chargers are going to make a serious run at challenging the Denver Broncos in the AFC West, they had better be set on defense…in particular the secondary.

    But are they? A year ago, Mike McCoy’s team gave up the fourth-most passing yards in the league. The Bolts allowed a somewhat-respectable 37 offensive touchdowns. However, the pass rush produced only 35 sacks and McCoy’s club totaled only 17 takeaways, including just 11 interceptions. And the team’s cornerbacks managed only three of those 11 thefts.

    The Chargers used a first-round picks on cornerback Jason Verrett. They added veteran Brandon Flowers, cast off by the Kansas City Chiefs, and added free agent Brandon Ghee to go with fourth-year pro Shareece Wright and journeyman Richard Marshall.

    Is that enough to handle the likes of quarterback Peyton Manning and his receiving corps, as well as some of the other top passing tandems around the league? It could be a question that is answered constantly in 2014.

San Francisco 49ers: Defense

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    Eight quarters of preseason action for the San Francisco 49ers has added up to 57-3.

    Or should that read 3-57?

    Jim Harbaugh’s team has been pushed around by the Baltimore Ravens (27-3) and Denver Broncos (34-0) the last two weeks. But let’s not bury the lead here.

    When the Niners open the season at Dallas vs. the Cowboys, we already know that the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense from a year won’t have nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and Pro Bowl inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. We are also waiting for what the league has in store for troubled outside linebacker Aldon Smith.

    In the loss to the Broncos, Bill Williamson of ESPN.com reports that strong safety Antoine Bethea left the game with a concussion.

    Things are not adding up to good things for this NFC contender and its defense, at least not at the moment.

Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line

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    After watching the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks easily dispose of the San Diego Chargers, 41-14, this past Friday night, we are reminded of two things.

    1. It is only a preseason game.

    2. Boy, the Seahawks are an awfully good football team.

    Still, no team is without flaws and the biggest issue that faced Pete Carroll’s club in 2013 could be the same this upcoming season. An offensive line that had problems staying intact a year ago will have some different faces.

    Starting right tackle Breno Giacomini (who missed seven games in 2013) signed with the New York Jets. His supposed replacement was Michael Bowie, but he was injured a few weeks ago, waived and claimed by the Cleveland Browns. Now second-round pick Justin Britt is the man on the spot. Valuable swingman Paul McQuistan is also now with the Browns as well, leaving via free agency.

    Keep in mind that former Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung missed eight starts in 2013 and Pro Bowl center Max Unger was sidelined for a few games as well. As you can see, talent was not the issue with the unit; rather, it was continuity. Yes, the team recently added veteran right tackle Eric Winston, who spent last season with the Arizona Cardinals.

    While the offensive line may only be a small question mark for the defending champs, Carroll is certainly hoping it doesn’t turn into a problematic exclamation point.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Running Back

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    Back in 2012, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the second of two first-round draft choices to select running back Doug Martin.

    The former Boise State product rewarded the team with 1,926 total yards from scrimmage, a dozen touchdowns and a Pro Bowl invitation.

    In 2013, Martin saw his second season cut short by a torn labrum. He was limited to six games, totaling 456 yards rushing and a score and just 12 receptions for 66 yards.

    While the third-year running back is on the comeback trail, Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times tells us that third-round draft choice Charles Sims won’t be providing any depth anytime soon.

    Can Martin recapture that Pro Bowl form? Are Bobby Rainey (the team leader with 532 yards rushing in 2013) and second-year pro Mike James (295 yards rushing in 2013) prepared to take up any slack?

    There may be some other questions surrounding the team that finished 4-12 a year ago. However, this is certainly something that bears watching…closely.

Tennessee Titans: Quarterback

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    Rogelio Solis/Associated Press

    It sounds like a broken record but in the case of the Tennessee Titans it is the elephant in the room.

    Can new head coach Ken Whisenhunt keep starting quarterback Jake Locker in the pocket and on the field?

    The eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft became the team’s starting quarterback in his second year in 2012. But Locker has missed almost as many games (14) as he has started (18) over that span. Injuries have played a major part of his lack of development to date.

    In those 18 starts, Locker ran 65 times for 446 yards and three touchdowns. He has also been sacked 41 times over that span. Those are numbers that Whisenhunt hopes to improve on this season.

    The Titans have assembled a very interesting team, one that hopes to recall last year’s 3-1 start and not eight losses in 12 games to close the season. Locker’s continued improvement, as well as some sustained help, would aid the cause.

    But you can’t help but worry.

Washington Redskins: Defense

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Jay Gruden is the latest man to take over as head coach of the Washington Redskins.

    The former offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals hopes to take advantage of the skills of running back Alfred Morris, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed. It starts with quarterback Robert Griffin III, who looks much healthier than he did at this time a year ago.

    The ‘Skins could have a very potent attack once the pieces all come together, but that’s not the issue when it comes to this club.

    What about the other side of the football? Jim Haslett begins his fifth season as the team’s defensive coordinator. The season before his arrival, Washington gave up 29 offensive touchdowns in 2009. In each of the past four campaigns, Redskins defenders have surrendered at least 37 touchdowns, including a league-high 52 in 2013.

    Will free-agent pickups such as Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, veteran free safety Ryan Clark and journeyman cornerback Tracy Porter make a difference? That trio joins outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, who combined for 18.5 of the club’s 36 sacks in 2013.

    Yes, RG3 commands a lot of attention in the nation’s capital. But it is Washington’s defense that remains question No. 1.

     

    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro Football Focus, Pro-Football-Reference, NFL.com and ESPN.com. Depth charts are provided by Ourlads.