Season in Review – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By Sean Tyler (@seantyleruk)

Time to take a look at Mr 30/30 himself and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arguably one of the most exciting teams to watch (not always for the right reasons) in 2019 but what did Bruce Arians achieve this season and what has he got to do to try and obtain a winning record in 2020? More importantly, does it involve Jameis Winston?


ENTERING THE SEASON


Hoping to improve on 5-11 from the previous year, Tampa Bay spent the spring re-signing, extending and acquiring a whole host of players. These included offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson, and leading rusher Peyton Barber. WR Breshad Perriman was a decent pick-up in free agency, but linebacker Shaquil Barrett was arguably the best signing (by any team) in 2019.

Paul Sancya/AP

A couple of months later, former LA Rams defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh also joined the fray, and in the NFL Draft, the Bucs stayed D-heavy. Other than kicker Matt Gay and receiver Scotty Miller, every other pick was a defender. Headed by another linebacker (LSU’s Devin White) at No.5 overall, followed by corners Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, NFL.com recently gave the rookie class an A+ grade.

Not surprisingly, the Bucs’ pre-season games were close, low-scoring affairs, with a two-point loss at Pittsburgh preceding wins over Miami (16-14), Cleveland (13-12) and Dallas (17-15). 


DURING THE SEASON


To the uninitiated, their eventual 7-9 record might appear to have been an unremarkable campaign for the Bucs. But in many ways, it was anything but; in fact, the record-book writers were kept pretty busy.

Providing a snapshot of what was to come, Jameis Winston featured heavily in the highlight reel of the opening day 31-17 loss to San Francisco, for all the wrong reasons (three interceptions, including two pick-sixes). The Bucs’ win at Carolina in Week 2 featured some solid last-ditch defending to keep Christian McCaffrey out of the end zone but then they blew an 18-point lead against the New York Giants, with rookie kicker Matt Gay missing what would have been a winning FG as the clock hit zero.

In Week 4, Suh, a former LA Ram, iced the 55-40 victory over the reigning NFC champions with a 37-yard fumble return. The win took the Bucs over the 50-point mark for the first time.

Bucs Report

Despite their early promise, the Buccaneers hit a wall and limped to 2-6 with a run of four defeats. In a lacklustre 31-24 loss to New Orleans, Teddy Bridgewater threw four TD passes, while the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson went one better a couple of weeks later. Worryingly, Tampa shipped almost 1,000 total yards in those two games alone.

In between, Tampa lost 37-26 in their Panthers rematch, with Winston (five interceptions – there’s a theme here, people) fumbling twice and getting sacked seven times in the second NFL game at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. After the bye week, our erstwhile quarterback hero (four turnovers) carried on where he left off in a 27-23 loss to the Titans.

Somehow, things picked up with a run of five wins in six, starting with Arians getting the better of his former team the Arizona Cardinals. After another loss to the Saints (Winston: four interceptions), the Bucs hit their stride, tormenting Matt Ryan, Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew in wins over Atlanta and Jacksonville. And in defeating the Colts 38-35, Winston (three turnovers) nabbed five total touchdowns and threw for 456 yards, surpassing his own single-season total with three games to spare. The win lifted the Bucs to 6-7, but it wasn’t enough to avoid elimination from postseason contention.

In setting yet another NFL benchmark – two consecutive games of 450+ yards passing – Winston threw for four TDs in a dominant 38-17 win over the Detroit Lions. Third-choice wideout Breshad Perriman – suddenly the target man after Chris Godwin and Mike Evans sustained hamstring injuries – set career bests down the stretch with 134 yards receiving (week 17 vs Atlanta) and three TDs (week 15 vs Lions), and finished the season with three 100-yard games.

Leon Halip / Getty Images

Disappointingly, having battled to back to 7-7 and the chance for a winning season, Tampa lost their last two against the playoff-bound Houston Texans and NFC South rivals the Atlanta Falcons, in which Devin White returned a fumble 91 yards to the house.

Looking back, the season was awash with new franchise records: most touchdowns (54), most points (458), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,181) and, to put the icing on the cake, Shaq Barrett smashed his one-year ‘prove-it’ deal out of the park with 19.5 sacks. The Bucs also led the NFL in run defence, allowing only one player (Seattle’s Chris Carson) – and only three entire teams – 100 yards rushing.

Even Jameis Winston himself set new highs: 5,109 passing yards, 33 touchdown passes, 626 passing attempts and 389 completions. But on the flip side, he also led the NFL with 30 interceptions. Amazingly, that wasn’t a franchise record (thanks to Vinny Testaverde back in the Eighties).

Reaching 7-9 in 2019 – with Head Coach Bruce Arians at the helm for the first time since being hauled out of retirement – the Buccaneers weren’t a million miles from the playoffs. That said, their eventual failure extended the NFL’s second-longest postseason drought to 12 years.


OFFSEASON OUTLOOK


At this time of year, which Bruce Arians has referred to as “monotonous”, there are no gaping holes to fill but Tampa Bay do have 19 unrestricted free agents, which muddies the waters somewhat. Even keeping the half-dozen regular starters like Suh, Dotson and Perriman will put a sizeable dent in their $92 million of available cap space (the third most in the NFL). While they’ll want to keep the bulk of their young defence in tact, the priorities remain two-fold: Shaq Barrett and Jameis Winston.

Back in December, Arians said that Barrett “ain’t going anywhere”. Alas, the Pro Bowl linebacker only signed for a year so if he’s staying, he’s gonna get paid. And if he’s not staying, he’s still gonna get paid. They could franchise tag him but if not, a DT like Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina) or Iowa’s edge rusher AJ Epenesa could be Round 1 draft targets.

As for quarterback, heaven only knows what they’ll do. At 67, Arians can’t wait forever for Winston to eradicate the errors. After their final game, he summed up the dilemma perfectly: “There’s so much good, and so much outright terrible.”

Octavio Jones / Tampa Bay Times

So do the highs outweigh the lows enough to pay Winston the $25m he could expect? It’s hard to tell.

They could move him on and get a bridge quarterback (a la Dalton or Bridgewater). They might keep him – possibly on a franchise tag – but still sign a new young thing to wait in the wings in case he goes turnover-crazy again. (And since his 30 TD/30 INT season ended, he’s had eye surgery so maybe we can expect something nearer 20/20 next year?) Or they could just let him compete against some of the game’s best QBs in a crowded free agent market, and sign a newbie. Whatever the case, Arians likes ‘em big and strong, so Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Jacob Eason from Washington could well be in the frame when they’re on the clock at the NFL Draft with pick #14.

So in summary, Buccaneers fans should be looking ahead to the coming year with a degree of optimism… as long as they can tie down a few of their best performers (#ShackleShaq) and solve The Great Winston Conundrum.

Oh, and there are some snazzy new uniforms in the pipeline…

Season in Review – Buffalo Bills

By Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)

Today it’s time to turn our attention to the AFC East. More specifically, the Buffalo Bills. After coming close to winning a playoff game for the first time in what seems like centuries, we assess why they fell short yet again, but will come back even stronger in 2020.


ENTERING THE SEASON


Languishing in the postseason wilderness since 1999, the Bills finally returned to the playoffs in 2017, only to revert to type with a 6-10 campaign in 2018. So, coming into last season, which scenario could Bills fans expect? Was 2017 a rare high in an otherwise bleak landscape, or could their team compete for the AFC East title again in their third year under HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane?

The offseason was largely shaped by Buffalo’s numerous free trade acquisitions, including centre Mitch Morse, wideouts Cole Beasley and John Brown, and TJ Yeldon joined in the backfield by the ageless Frank Gore. Not one but two Cincinnati tight ends (Tyler Kroft and Jake Fisher) added to the influx, contradicting the common narrative that “players don’t want to move to Buffalo”.

Get 10% off at NFL Europe Shop with code FULL10

These recruits were complemented by a decent draft haul. Ed Oliver (No.9 overall) was picked to beef up the defensive line, guard Cody Ford was added to protect QB Josh Allen (no longer a wet-behind-the-ears rookie), while RB Devin Singletary and TE Dawson Knox were decent Round 3 and 4 catches.

Armed with this new talent, Buffalo beat the Colts, Panthers, Lions and Vikings in their first-ever undefeated preseason. Former Wasps and England rugby star Christian Wade, who joined as an exempt international player, nailed a 65-yard TD on his first carry as a running back against Indy. But for all that promise, Wade still needed time to learn the game and was shipped out to the practice squad.

Adrian Kraus/AP

DURING THE SEASON


Maintaining their preseason form, the Bills shot out of the gate. They started with back-to-back wins at New York’s MetLife Stadium over the Jets (a squeaky 17-16, having trailed by 16 in the third quarter) and the Giants (a more comfortable 28-14). The subsequent four-point win over the Bengals was notable for the aforementioned Dawson Knox rumbling over the Cincy secondary like a Chieftain tank, as well as two interceptions by CB Tre’Davius White.

Frustratingly, the Bills’ first loss came in a defensive battle with their AFC rivals from Boston. They lost 16-10 to the Patriots but in their defence, Allen did have to leave the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit. Buffalo hit back by seeing off the Titans and, after their bye week, the Dolphins, improving to 5-1 for the first time in a decade. Wedged between losses to the Eagles and the Browns (in which Stephen Hauschka missing a game-tying kick), a commanding 24-9 win against the Redskins saw the Bills equal their 2018 record of six wins with half a season to spare.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Things were going well, as the Bills ploughed on to an impressive 9-3. A three-game hot streak began in Week 11 against Miami, in which ‘Fitzmagic’ was sacked seven times and the ‘Fins were held to just 23 rushing yards. In shutting down the Broncos 20-3, Singletary recorded his first 100-yard rushing game and Gore went third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, the Bills’ 26-15 win over Dallas – featuring a trick TD pass from Brown to Singletary – secured only their fourth winning season in two decades.

Unfortunately, reaching such heady heights seemed to trigger a bout of vertigo and the Bills began to wobble. Their only win on the home stretch was a 17-10 primetime victory at Pittsburgh in Week 15, with four interceptions helping to seal Buffalo’s first 10-win season this century. In their other three regular season games, however, they fell to the all-conquering Ravens, the dear ol’ Patriots again (handing them the divisional title in the process) and, more surprisingly, the Jets – although a number of first-choice guys were rested before the playoffs.

James P. McCoy/Buffalo News

Did someone mention the playoffs? Yes, the 10-6 Bills had locked up the AFC’s No. 5 seed and made the promised land again. But alas, they came up short at the first time of asking, losing 22-19 to the Texans in the Wild Card round. Buffalo ran up a 16-0 lead (with Brown throwing another trick TD, this time to his quarterback Allen) only for the wheels to fall off, leaving Deshaun Watson to mastermind a final-quarter comeback for Houston. The Bills managed to force overtime but Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning FG extended the Bills’ playoff drought to 25 years…


OFFSEASON OUTLOOK


From the outside, the Bills’ 60th season seemed a pretty decent one but for the Bills Mafia, I suspect the way it fizzled out was disappointing. Nonetheless, a second playoff run in three years is not to be sneezed at, and Josh Allen showed wholesale improvements in his second season. But can Buffalo take the next step from playoff pretender to legit contender? Well, they have $90 million in cap space and nine selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, which can only help, right?

The general consensus is that offensively, they’ll prioritise a physical wide receiver this offseason, despite decent production from Brown and Beasley. Buffalo needs an injection of youth and size at WR so when the Bills are on the clock at #22, expect someone like Tee Higgins from Clemson (a few mock drafts really like this pairing already) or Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr to be selected. Knowing the Bills’ affinity for free agency, a deep threat such as the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper might also fit the bill.

With Frank Gore’s one-year deal at an end, Christian Wade also gives the coaching staff additional food for thought at RB, especially if they can’t snare someone like LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire with a mid-round pick.

On the other side of the ball, the defence is a decent, disciplined unit. Nonetheless, a pass rusher like K’Lavon Chaisson (another of LSU’s stars) should be high on their shopping list, especially with linebacker Lorenzo Alexander retiring and two defensive tackles hitting free agency. A second corner alongside the impressive Tre’ White would make sense too.

Getty Images

So there you have it. The Buffalo Bills are a well-run outfit that looks set to use college drafts, trades and free agents to build around a blossoming young quarterback. Since Coach McDermott came to Orchard Park, things have been on an upward trend and, with a decent war chest at their disposal, fans should expect more of the same in the year ahead.

Season in Review – Tennessee Titans

By James Fotheringham (@nflhypetrain)

Next up in our review series is the Tennessee Titans.


Before the season the Tennessee Titans were one of those teams that nobody really thought much about. They were “just a team” who were too good to be bottom of the pile in the AFC South, but behind the Texans and Colts. When Andrew Luck announced his retirement, hopes grew, but the prospect of DeShaun Watson on offence, JJ Watt on defence and strong teams in other divisions, making the playoffs via a wildcard look difficult.


The Personnel:


The Coaching team lost OC Matt LaFleur to the Packers which led to Arthur Smith being promoted from the TE coach role. Otherwise, nothing changed. Mike Vrabel was HC, Jon Robinson GM and Dean Pees DC.

On Defence the team had 5 rookies in the final roster, but mostly the team was led by veterans Jurrell Casey, Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan with developing stars Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry and Jayon Brown all stepping up. Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Butler began their 2nd seasons at the Titans while Cameron Wake joined from Miami.

On Offence the team added AJ Brown in the 2nd round of the draft to pair with Corey Davis (taken in the 1st round last year). They also grabbed Adam Humphries from Tampa Bay and retained Delanie Walker for another year. Walker went down very early and so Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser shared to load. Ryan Tannehill joined from Miami so act as backup to Marcus Mariota (who started the season with a rather short leash). The Running back duo of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis were retained while the offensive line was improved by the addition of Roger Saffold from the Rams to join Jack Conklin, Taylor Lewan and co. Henry and Lewis were okay in 2018 but Henry only just scraped over 1000 rushing yards and his utilisation stopped him from reaching his full potential. A lot of experts doubted he’d be able to become elite but as the season unfolded, he exploded.


The Regular Season


Cast your minds back to the conclusion of week 6. The Titans had just been shutout 16-0 by the Denver Broncos to drop to 2-4. The Bills, Jags and Colts had each got the better of them and wins away against the Browns and the Falcons were the only high points. Marcus Mariota was struggling and the team as a whole only scored more than 20 points in 2 games (those in which they won) and had 3 games scoring 7 points for fewer.

During and after the loss in Denver the Titans switched QB and put Ryan Tannehill under centre and that decision was key in turning around their season. They went on to in 6 of their next 7 games to move to 8-5 and in a fight with the Texans for the AFC South. In 10 starts and 2 relief games, Tannehill would complete 201 passes for 2,742yds and 22TCs with only 6INTs. A 117.5 passer rating and completion percentage over 70% was a revelation for the Titans while he was also able to rush 43 times for 185 yards and 4TDs. This support and change in playing style caught teams off guard and gave Derrick Henry the room and licence to run.

Image Credit – Chipermc, Wikimedia

Tannehill made the team a passing threat and brought relevance to the likes of 2nd round pick AJ Brown, 2018 1st rounder Corey Davis and the Delanie Walker replacements at TE in Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser. Brown grew throughout his rookie season and became a serious big play threat. Even more so when Henry got into his stride. Brown managed to break the 1000yd reception plateau with 1,052 on 52 receptions, with many of them being more than 20yards. 8 TDs made him an invaluable asset and he was ably backed up by Davis and Humphries.

Dion Lewis was largely ineffective all year. With enough good passing options Lewis was left as more of a backup and a decoy while Derrick Henry ran the show. Henry never had more than 3 targets, so all his work was done on the ground, but after 9 weeks he had only had one game with over 100 rushing yards. Fantasy owners weren’t feeling to need to trade for him and even though the team was improving, nobody could foresee what was coming. In week 10 at home to Kansas City, Henry had 188 rushing yards on 23 attempts and his first multiple TD game of the season. Up to that point he’d had 644 yards and 6TDs in 9 games. This game was the turning point as the 35-32 win (mostly on Henrys back) was the start of a 4 game win streak in which Henry would amass 641 scrimmage yards and 7TDs and each of the 4 games would see him rush for over 100 yards. It was an incredible run which made them the form team going into their crunch divisional game against the Texans.  

Image Credit – Walker Kinsler, Wikimedia

The week 15 head to head was critical as it effectively decided whether then Texans would win the division or whether the Titans would overhaul them. With the Steelers currently in the wildcard spot, whoever lost would be in a scrap to make the post-season. The Texans were off form, totally the opposite to the Titans but DeShaun Watson and co secured a 24-21 win. the Titans were left scrapping with the Steelers for the final wildcard and a loss to the Saints (with Derrick Henry missing from the line-up) the following week proved not to be critical as the Steelers loss to the Jets gave Tennessee the jump on them based on strength of opponent. The Titans then had a simple “Win and in” game against the already playoff bound Texans. An easy 35-14 win against a below strength Houston sealed the deal. A 9-7 record and with the 2nd wildcard spot they’d go in as the 6th seeds in the AFC.


The Post-Season


If seeing the Patriots lose the Dolphins and fall into the Wildcard round (much to the benefit of the Chiefs) wasn’t surprising enough, then what happened at Gillette Stadium certainly was. Very few analysts gave the Titans a chance. They squeaked in on the last day as the final wildcard, have Ryan Tannehill as their QB and weren’t a top 5 defence. Meanwhile the Patriots have Brady and Edelman, a top 3 defence and Belichick in control. 

In the regular season Derrick Henry totalled 1,505 rushing yards on 303 attempts and a (tied) league leading 16TDs. In the post season, he looked unstoppable. He had 34 attempts for 182 yards and a TD against the Patriots, while the defence stifled an increasingly annoyed Patriots offence. Ryan Tannehill only completed 8 passed (from 15 attempts) for 72 yards and a TD but that was all he needed. Anthony Firkser caught the 12 yard pass in the first quarter before Henry took in in from the 1 yard line just before half time to see the Titans into a 14-13 lead. A stalemate second half was finally broken when Logan Ryan picked off Brady with 9 seconds left and took it to the house to cue wild celebrations nationwide.  

Image Credit: Will Newton/Getty Images

The upset against the Patriots was incredible and many anti-Patriot fans were quick to get behind them, but very few people would have said they had a chance against the top seed Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson. Once again, the Titans proved the world wrong. Derrick Henry again would star with 30 rushes for 195 yards at 6.5yrds per carry. He did get a TD, but it was neither rushing, nor receiving. A 3 yard loop ball to Corey Davis on a trick play was probably the moment where the game was won. The defence held, what some argue was the most potent offence in the NFL, to just 12 points while on offence Ryan Tannehill got them over the line without really doing much.

Tannehill only completed 7 passes, but 2 of those were touchdowns. First to Jonnu Smith to set the tone early and then followed up by Kalif Raymond as they took a 14-0 lead. 2 Field goals for the Ravens brought them back into it but the trick play from Derrick Henry to Corey Davis took the wind out of the Ravens. Only minutes later Tannehill was rushing the ball in himself and at 28-6 with less than 20 minutes to go, it was over. The Ravens would get one back through Hayden Hurst, but it was too little too late.

The AFC Championship game against the Chiefs wasn’t the matchup expected on most people’s brackets, but with the Titans on form and Patrick Mahomes being Patrick Mahomes, it was going to be fun to watch. A heavy run offence vs a heavy pass offence and in the end, despite the Titans taking 10-0 and 17-7 leads, the Chiefs did what they have done so often, and scored a succession of TD’s to swing the balance in their favour. A Greg Joseph field goal and a Derrick Henry 4 yard TD run gave the Titans a perfect start to the game. The response from Mahomes to Hill kept it tight but the 10 point lead was restored when lineman Dennis Kelly caught a pass from Tannehill when labelled as an eligible receiver. Another trick that worked a treat.

After that, it became the Patrick Mahomes show. 4 TD’s in 12 game minutes including a short pass to Hill, a dazzling run, a rush from Damien Williams and a 60 yarder to Sammy Watkins finished off the Titans. At 35-17 with 7:33 left on the clock it was a mountain to climb. Tannehill did get another TD to Firkser but with the team behind, he was being forced to throw more. He had 209 yards and 2 TDs with no INTs but with Derrick Henry limited to under 70 rushing yards the Chiefs got the job done and would go on to the Superbowl.


Conclusions


At no point in the season did anyone truly think the Titans would be in the AFC Championship game. They just kept surprising people and after years of not realising his potential, Derrick Henry has finally shown how elite he can be. No shadow from Demarco Murray, no split responsibilities with Dion Lewis and a QB that is capable of running and providing an alternative which keeps the opponents guessing.

It’s hard to say what they need to concentrate on in the off season since the only thing that stopped them was the brilliance of Patrick Mahomes. They had a good young secondary who are learning fast, a pass rush which maybe could use a fresher set of legs (but are still playing to a high level) and some good special teams’ players. On offence, if Henry stays healthy and the likes of Davis and Brown keep developing and the Smith/Firkser combo can evolve into the long term replacements for Delanie Walker then it’s hard to suggest what else they can do. The O-Line is great, and Ryan Tannehill has been a revelation. The big decision is whether the Titans see him as their future. Tannehill is a UFA this off season and it will depend on contracts and cap space whether he returns. I’d be very keen to keep him on as low level deal as he is willing to take if I was the GM. The foundations of something great are there. I’d like to see Tannehill to AJ Brown for another year.

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans
Image Credit: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

After the loss to the Chiefs Dean Pees announced his retirement (again) and so the team will need a new defensive co-ordinator next season. Their defence was a big reason why Derrick henry was able to be so dominant. There is still room for improvement as they gave up 20+ points on 8 occasions in the regular season and they need to figure out a way of stopping Mahomes, but the signs are positive and maybe a the new DC can tip them over than edge.

It will be interesting to see how they cope next season with the new weight of expectation and teams targeting Henry and Brown, but if you are a Titans fan then this has been a season to remember and you have some exciting times ahead. #TitanUp      

Season in Review – Baltimore Ravens

By Shaun Blundell (@Shaun_F10Y)

In another installment of our NFL series looking back at the 2019 season, it’s time to put the Baltimore Ravens under the spotlight.


entering the season


The shiny new toy of the NFL, Lamar Jackson had a full offseason as starter to help aid his progression. After committing to Lamar Jackson the talk of the off season was could the Ravens be sustainable in their offensive style. An excellent end to 2018/19 came crashing down in the playoffs as the Chargers appeared to show everyone how to stop the offence.

Several key pieces left on the defensive side of the ball as the the defensive turnstile gate was in full swing with the likes of Zadarius Smith going out, but Adding Earl Thomas was a major coup to provide some quality play and veteran leadership in the secondary.

The first season in the post Ozzie Newsome era appeared to be one of offensive development and defensive rebuilding.


during the season


59 points in their opening game of the season was a pretty decisive answer to how this offence would look. Lamar Jackson had time in the pocket and threw to wide open receivers and the ground game looked impressive.

Image result for lamar jackson vs dolphins
Image Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The next few weeks saw some close contests with the ravens losing 2 games in that stretch, but the season really got its jolt in week 7. Travelling to Seattle the Ravens dominated by a score of 30-16 and then never looked back.

A demolition job of none other than the New England Patriots followed in the following week as the Ravens staked their claim on being the class of the AFC.

The offence then put up 49 against the Bengals, 41 against the Texans and 45 against the Rams in an impressive stretch of production. A huge week 13 win against the 49ers kicked off December and 3 more routine wins wrapped up the number 1 seed in the AFC for the first time in their franchise history. The stellar play in all 3 phases of the game rewarded the team with an impressive 12 pro bowl selections.

Image Credit – Patrick Smith/Getty

Lamar Jackson unanimously won the MVP award as he broke the single season rushing record for a QB, whilst improving his passing game to the point of being a legitimate dual threat by having the most passing touchdowns in the regular season.  The Baltimore Ravens were 1st in points per game scored and 3rd in defensive points given up.

With a 1st round bye secured, it was a shock to everyone when they fell to the Tennessee Titans at home in the divisional round, with some people questioning whether Lamar Jackson can do it in the big games.


OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

The exciting thing for the Ravens is that they have a young core to continue to build around offensively. Lamar Jackson will be paired with Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown for years to come and young running back Justice Hill has flashed when spelling Mark Ingram for a series here and there. The future of Greg Roman seems to be secure for another season as he was overlooked for any open HC vacancy, which will be music to the ears of Ravens fans. He and John Harbaugh were winners at the NFL Honours night, picking up Assistant Coach and Coach of the Year respectively.

Defensively, the Ravens will look to get some younger pieces into the group as veterans Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters (acquired this season) can’t go on forever. Adding a veteran pass catcher on the outside would also not be a surprise

The Ravens look primed for a sustained few years of ultra competitive football. Defenses have yet to find a way to consistently stop Lamar Jackson and company and until they do it is hard to look past these Ravens.

The obvious concern is an injury to Jackson. He is such a unique player and the ravens deserve praise for tailoring everything around him but could anyone else be successful in this scheme?

Season in Review – New England Patriots

By Andy Goddard (@godsy1985)

The next instalment of our season review articles takes a look at last years world champions, the New England Patriots. Is a 12-4 regular season record really the end of the dynasty?


Entering the season


Going into the 2019 season, the Patriots were once again one of the favourites to lift the Lombardi Trophy in Miami but there were also a lot of question marks against the team. The major concern appeared to be at the wide receiver position, which was very thin, but did still include the reigning Super Bowl MVP in Julian Edelman and the troubled yet talented, Josh Gordon. The other obvious concern was the loss of Rob Gronkowski. ‘Gronk’ had announced his retirement in March 2019 leaving the Pats with an ageing Ben Watson and two unproven players in Ryan Izzo and, the recently acquired, Matt LaCosse.

Preparations for the new season took another hit on 26th August 2019 when it was announced that centre David Andrews had been diagnosed with pulmonary embolism which would eventually result in him being placed on season ending injury reserve (IR) at the end of August 2019. The Patriots 1st round draft pick, N’Keal Harry, also then found himself on IR in September due to an ankle injury.

Before a play had even been called, the Patriots were struggling on offense but the defence had held the high scoring LA Rams to just three points in Super Bowl 53 so there was still optimism that with Brady and Belichick, another trip to the big game was possible.

The AFC East has been looked upon as a little bit of a joke for quite a while now. The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins were both in transition periods and the only challenge for New England looked to be the Buffalo Bills. However, heading into the 2019 season, the Patriots were still expected to win the AFC East and head into the playoffs once more.


During the season


The Patriots started the season with what was regarded as a very weak schedule. The Pats opened the season 8-0 and there was talk from some people in the media that this team could go undefeated. Blow out wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets (twice) and the Washington Redskins did not tell the whole story as the second half of their schedule would show.

On September 7th, the Patriots signed Antonio Brown to a one year contract. Suddenly a weak wide receiver unit was now looking very promising with Brown, Gordon and Edelman all lining up alongside Tom Brady. Unfortunately, this lasted just one game (at Miami) before Brown was eventually cut on 20th September due to an ongoing court case and further allegations made against the wide receiver.

David Santiago/AP

Regardless of the Antonio Brown issue, the Patriots were winning, and winning comprehensively. Their defence’s play was historically dominant and was the catalyst for the 8-0 record. Scoring touchdowns on defence and special teams at an astonishing rate covered over the cracks on offense. The Patriots ‘ran over’ teams on their way to winning Super Bowl 53, but this team had to rely more and more on Tom Brady as the running game was non-existent. This may seem strange, having to rely on arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game but Brady was 42 when the season began and (finally) showing signs of his age. To make matters worse, his wide receivers were also struggling. They couldn’t get open, and on the occasions they did, the number of dropped catches was very alarming. The once reliable Julian Edelman, lead the league in dropped catches (9) and Brady no longer had his big tight end, ‘Gronk’. In October, Josh Gordon found himself on IR before being before released and claimed by the Seattle Seahawks. Although Mohamed Sanu was traded to the Patriots on 22nd October, he also struggled and finished the season with just 207 yards.

A week 9 trip to Baltimore brought the Patriots first defeat of the season and although they won the next two games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys it was once again the defence that were the main cause, holding the Eagles and Cowboys to 10 and 9 points respectively.

Notoriously, the Patriots thrive in December and begin to play their best football. The 2019 season was the complete opposite of this as they fell to consecutive defeats against the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. New England’s offense had looked a little better against the Chiefs but one really bad piece of officiating took points off the board when N’Keal Harry was wrongly adjudge to have stepped out when he had scored a touchdown. They would eventually lose 16-23.

Nancy Lane/ BH

Heading into week 16, the Patriots needed to beat the Buffalo Bills to secure another AFC East title. A 24-17 win meant that not only did they win the AFC East but a victory in their final game, at home to the (4-11) Miami Dolphins, would secure the number 2 seed in the AFC and clinch a first round bye in the playoffs. In week 17, things appeared to be going to plan as Tom Brady drove his Patriots down the field late on to take a 24-20 lead but ‘Fitzmagic’ (Ryan Fitzpatrick) had other ideas as the Dolphins scored with seconds remaining to win the game 27-24. That defeat, coupled with a win by the Kansas City Chiefs, meant that the Patriots would finish as the third seed and have to play in the wild game for the first time in since 2009!

The Patriots hosted the Tennessee Titans in the wild card game. With the Titans leading 14-13 at the half, the Patriots would fail to score another point in the 2019 season as the Titans ran out 20-13 winners and advanced to the divisional round.


Offseason outlook


The big question going into the off season revolves around quarterback Tom Brady, who will be an unrestricted free agent. It’s crazy to think of Brady in another uniform but there is a real possibility this happens. It was well reported that Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, wanted to keep Jimmy Garoppolo before he was eventually traded to San Francisco so we could see a new quarterback under centre for the Patriots. Of course, Brady could very well return for another season but one thing appears certain, Brady does not want to retire just yet.

Adam Hunger /AP

If Brady was to move on, do the Patriots go with back up Jarrett Stidham, draft their new man, or make a trade? I would be very surprised to see Brady sign with someone else and believe that Robert Kraft (New England Patriots Owner) will do everything in his power to keep his QB around and make him a Patriot for life.

In 2019, the defense looked solid against the pass with Stephon Gilmore being the stand out performer and winning Defensive MVP, but they need to improve against the run. This was highlighted in the wild card game against the Titans.

The Patriots also have a long list of players who will hit free agency. Some big name players including Devin McCourty, the impressive Kyle Van Noy, Matthew Slater, Jamie Collins, Joe Thuney and Danny Shelton will be available. Not all of these players will be Patriots next season. Kyle Van Noy and Joe Thuney will get paid big money by another team so will need replacing and the offense still needs improvement at the skill positions. The loss of Gronkowski was huge, not only in the passing game but he also excelled as a blocker. New England has $49 million in cap space and this will probably grow with contracts being restructured.

Heading into the 2020 season, the Patriots need at least 2 wide receivers, a tight end and maybe a quarterback! Added to those positions there is also a need at guard and the linebacker position if Thuney and Van Noy do not sign new deals. This could be the biggest offseason for the Patriots in a long time!


Summary


At the top of the article we asked, ‘is a 12-4 regular season record really the end of the dynasty?’ And for me, the answer is a resounding no! The Patriots actually improved on last seasons regular season record and although their season ended early, they still went 12-4! In fact, there are only a handful of teams that wouldn’t be very happy with that record. There is no arguing, It was a disappointing season but that just highlights the success that the Patriots have had over the past two decades. One teams failure would be seen as a huge success by many other teams in the league. Whilst Belichick is still the head coach, they will always have a chance.

If Tom Brady returns and Belichick can get the right people around him, they will be challenging again next season. The AFC East will be more competitive next year with the Buffalo Bills being the biggest challengers and the Miami Dolphins improving.

Much was made of Brady and the Patriots passing offense, but if you look at the stats, if wasn’t too bad. They finished the season 7th in passing yards per game (253.6 yards) and were also in the top 5 for total number of drops (23). To the dismay of many, I don’t see New England fading away just yet but improvement is needed.


Fun Fact: Heading into week 9 the Patriots were 8-0 but if their offense hadn’t scored a single point, they still would have been 4-2-2!

Season in Review – Minnesota Vikings

By Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)

Next in our series, we take a look at Captain Kirk and the Minnesota Vikings. Was this season a success? Vikings fans, let us know your thoughts – @full10yards on the Social!


Entering the Season


The Vikings have always had the end goal of reaching a Super Bowl the moment they signed Kirk Cousins to that huge fully guaranteed contract. With pretty much the same pieces on the team, the pressure was the same as last year, the expectations were the same as last year, get to the big one.

Garrett Bradbury was the new anchor at Center and they also brought in Irv Smith to deploy some 2 tight end sets to help #establishtherun.

Kirk Cousins was entering his 2nd season as a Viking with no more excuses, no more mulligans and certainly nowhere to hide. The team was built to reach a Super Bowl and Kirk Cousins was assigned the role to lead them there. Simple.


DURING THE SEASON


If you put the last 2 seasons of the Vikings back to back, it pretty much was groundhog day;

Struggled in the division, with 3 of their 6 losses coming in the division and swept by the Bears for the 2nd straight season. A top 10 defence in terms of points per game and Kirk Cousins stinking it up on Prime Time/island games when it matters. Oh and Dalvin Cook not being fully healthy for a stretch.

They kicked off their season with home wins against the Falcons and Raiders, but away losses in Lambeau and Soldier Field.

Adam Thielen, who would later go on an miss some time through injury, along with Stefon Diggs kicked up a fuss about the offence and their involvement in it led to a lot of unrest in the VIkings camp, including Diggs being fined for missing practice.

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Image Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

They seemingly managed to kiss and make up as Kirk Cousins then went hell for leather with the rock and a relatively easy stretch saw them improve to 8-3 with their only loss before the bye coming to the Kansas City Chiefs (the Matt Moore led one, not the Patrick Mahomes one).

Losses against Green Bay and Chicago meant that they entered the playoffs as a wildcard and a 10-3 record.

Perhaps their most dominant display of the season came in the wildcard round, where they absolutely dominated the red hot Saints andVikings fans thinking maybe, just maybe, Kirk Cousins has turned a corner.

Unfortunately, around that corner was step 1 as a dismal performance against the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round saw them go out with a whimper amidst more rumours of unrest with Stefon Diggs, who visibly threw his helmet to the ground during that Wildcard game.

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Image Credit: Adam Bettcher/Getty

With no NFC title game being played, you have to grade the season as that the Vikings underachieved and Kirk Cousins really hasn’t gone to prove that he was worth that guaranteed contract or that he is the guy to take this team to the holy land.


offseason outlook


Kevin Stefanski has agreed to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Mike Zimmer is likely to be retained by the Vikings.

It’s hard to put a finger on what to do with Minnesota to help them take the next step, though many will still point to the Quarterback position, as they have done for the past several years. There are a lot of well paid players on both sides of the ball and some creativity with the salary cap will be required. It’s hard to pinpoint where they’ll bolster in the draft as one week they look complete and another they have more holes than a cheese grater (NFC North Green Bay Packers joke there). You have to feel that they’ll add something to the offensive line due to the way they want to run their offence, and they’ll probably focus on defence, Xavier Rhodes did not have a pro bowl worthy season.

Come next season, will it be Groundhog day once again for the Vikings in 2020? Probably.

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Season In Review – Houston Texans

By Euan De Ste Croix (@podcastTexans)

The NFL season is over which means 2 things, 1 – it’s time to be sad for a few months until the NFL Draft and 2 – You now have a lot of time on your hands.

In this series of articles, we try and take care of number 2.


entering the season


Another Houston Texans season has come and gone with an all too familiar ending. A disappointing play-off loss and not for the first time, a resounding defeat to Kansas City. This was to be the final act for the players, prior to clearing out their lockers, at NRG stadium.

In July, the Texans decided against having a GM, when Brian’s Gaine was fired and the team were heavily scrutinised for the investment given in trade deals involving Laremy Tunsil & Kenny Stills coming in from the Dolphins. Conversely, Jadeveon Clowney was sent to Seattle for a cents on the dollar type of value, in a seemingly emotive move by O’Brien.

A mixture of an ageing defensive co-ordinator and erosion of defensive talent contributed to the biggest concerns of this team. The lack of pass rush, mixed with a continuously revolving personnel in the secondary would typically not provide a formula for effective defence. A historical shift in identity for a team which has been lead by it’s defensive stars.


during the season


The biggest change for team was beating the supposed upper echelon teams with wins against Kansas City and New England contributing to a 10-6 record and were even afforded the luxury of resting their starters for week 17 (for those with an interest in to patterns, go and check out the Houston win loss sequence this season).

This offence lead by Deshaun Watson, at times, looked capable of beating anyone. However, two regrettable off-days against Carolina and Denver, both at home, lead to much frustration amongst the fan base. O’Brien was caught on camera amidst a heated exchange with a fan, leaving the field in the latter, which summed up the frustration levels amongst the support.

Will Fuller’s absence towards the back end of the season again was a sore miss for the Texans. Fuller is a true game changer on offence and the Texans looked one dimensional without him on the field. The offensive improvement were equalised by the fading talent and injuries to their defence. Which ultimately left them cursing what could have been, if an automatic seed had been grasped, for a consecutive season.

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Image Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty

In the Wildcard game they were reliant on a monumental comeback form Watson against the Buffalo Bills being. Acrobatic heroics from Watson we’re required, coupled with a John Allen implosion to sneak an overtime win. The divisional match up, reversed the roles, where the Texans, inexcusably threw away a 24point lead. As they were on the receiving end of an offensive schooling by Andy Reid and Patrick Mahommes.

Some players of note, Carlos Hyde had a bounceback season, rushing for over a 1000 yards, a career first, after bouncing around multiple rosters in the past few seasons. Duke Johnson was third in targets and provided a complementary piece to this offence. Both 1st and 2nd round picks Tytus Howard and Max Sharping had stellar rookie seasons to build upon and solidified the line in front of their quarterback.

On defence, Whitney Mercilius was able to put together 7.5 sacks and 2 interception on the season. The former Illinois, first round pick was rewarded with his second contract extension, despite his age. Jacob Martin off the edge has a great deal of potential if he can develop as a speed rusher. Zack Cunningham lead the team in tackles yet again and is perhaps their most important piece in that unit.

offseason outlook

After falling substantially short, it would seem changes to the coaching staff would likely follow. The loss of Jadeveon Clowney, left a big hole in the front seven which will be priority number one to address. There’s also issues with the personnel in the secondary left the Texans finishing 28th in defensive efficiency and in need of major upgrades. In his maiden season as defensive co-ordinator, will face a sizeable challenge to turn this unit around.

The biggest talking point this off-season will be the growing influence of coach Bill O’Brien. He as de facto-GM made major plays to add to the offence and the cornerback positions. This then lead to relinquishing draft picks but the teams record regressed and looked more than short of being genuine contenders in the playoffs. Long time cap guru Chris Olsen was let go just weeks after the season, with further changes in offing for the front office and its unquiet structure, centred around O’Brien.

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Image Credit: Michael Wyke/AP

Another AFC South title is a modest achievement based on the draft capital expended. With many key players requiring extensions (Tunsil, Watson, Cunningham & Fuller) this off season, it will likely consume much of their cap space. The ability for Texans to acquire players cable of generating a pass rush and improving depth on Offence may not be an easy task, especially considering the lack of draft capital over the next few years in the early rounds.

As we stand today, the fan base is growing restless with Bill O’Brien who will need to build a roster capable of a top AFC seed and a deep play-off run if they are to be appeased. 

House-call Hardman: The Chiefs Secret Weapon.

By Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)

The Kansas City Chiefs have one of the most stacked offences in the league, if not the most stacked.

Asking someone to name off their weapons would be like asking the Army to name all of theirs; they’d get half-way through and you’d already know that you were going to lose.

Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, Damien Williams; the list goes on and they really do seem as dangerous on paper as on the grass of the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami where they will face up against the equally impressive San Francisco 49ers for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

But despite all the big names on their roster, and despite all the first-round picks on the 49ers defence, there is a certain name you should be looking out for as soon as that ball is kicked off on the 2nd February.

Mecole Hardman.

A second round pick out of Georgia this last year, Hardman’s explosive rookie season has seen him go to the pro-bowl as a returner, and as I’ll explain, may take him to Super Bowl MVP.


Return to sender


Hardman’s impact as a return specialist has been incredibly impressive in just his rookie season.

You can expect the Pro-Bowler to attempt to affect field position and even cause some danger to the end-zone in Miami as Hardman has a serious chance to be the first player since Devin Hester to return the opening kick-off of a Super Bowl for a touchdown.

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Stan Szeto/UAS TODAY Sports

The Chiefs not only lead the post season in return yards with 247, but also post the highest average return of any team that featured in the Championship round.

The 49ers gave up 148 kick return yards to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round, so the possibility of breaking a big runback is there for Hardman who ranked highly in all returning statistics this season.


A helpful alternative


Mecole Hardman’s fairly lowkey status may also be of huge assistance as he shoots to become the Chiefs main Super Bowl weapon.

With Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce likely to be doubled by the 49ers defence, there is space for an alternative threat to emerge for Andy Reid’s offence.

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Abbie Parr/Getty

Hill will be in crosshairs come game time after his performance in the AFC Championship meaning that he may see coverage rolled his way by Niners DC, Robert Saleh.

And as for Kelce, well you can expect to see him struggle in Florida as well, as the 49ers gave up just 552 receiving yards to Tight Ends in the regular season, the fewest of any team.

Kelce suffered a similar fate vs the Tennessee Titans as he saw chips and bracketing galore in an attempt to slow him down, which worked.

These techniques used by opposing DC’s to prevent the Chief’s main weapons often give up some space to players like Hardman to make a name for themselves, or indeed Sammy Watkins who ended up over 100 receiving yards last time out.


Slotting into place


Both at the University of Georgia and indeed as a Chief, Hardman has done much of his business from the inside the hashes.

37% of his season has been spent trying to take advantage of the slot and the people who defend it, and it has been fairly successful as Hardman collated 6 receiving touchdowns in his debut campaign.

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Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

This week he is likely to face up against Slot Cornerback K’Waun Williams who had a good game against the Green Bay Packers and specifically Allen Lazard.

The challenge for Williams this week is the incredibly rapid Hardman, who times in over a quarter of a second faster over 40 yards (4.33 to 4.58) than Williams and posts far higher agility and speed scores, per PlayerProfiler.

The 2019 49ers defence for all its dominance, have given up 50+ yard and one touchdown receiving games to both Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks and Pharaoh Cooper of the Arizona Cardinals.

Of all the players to have returned against the Niners, interestingly these two post the hights snap share in the slot, 50% and 67% respectively, all of which could be pointing to an area of small weakness for Andy Reid to try and use.


Rushing to conclude


If I hadn’t already convinced you to back Hardman at the Hard Rock, then just give me one last chance.

Any college football fans will probably recall, the 2017 National Championship between Alabama and Georgia, but what you might not remember is Mecole Hardman having over 130 all purpose yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Image result for mecole hardman georgia vs alabama
Jamie Squire/Getty

Apart from preventing concerns that Hardman struggles to perform when the lights are bright and the pressure is on, his rushing touchdown in that game on a Jet Sweep leads me to my bravest prediction.

Andy Reid often takes advantage of trick plays like Jet Sweeps and motions from his receivers like Tyreek Hill’s first touchdown of the Championship game.

He has only rushed Hardman four times this season, preferring Hill for this duty, which if I’m not mistaken, is setting us up for an attempt or two in the big game for number 17.

Hardman may just end up with a rushing touchdown to match the 150 all purpose yards and a receiving touchdown that i’ll be betting on him to have.