AFC EAST ROUNDTABLE: Keys to the season

Each AFC East expert chimes in on the top concerns for their team headed into the season...

The AFC East experts are back again. In the last preseason roundtable of the year, the experts share their thoughts on what each team needs to be concerned with as the regualr season gets underway this weekend.

What are the top three concerns affecting your team heading into the 2009 season?

Alain Poupart (Dolphin Digest):

1. Keeping Chad Pennington healthy:
Make no mistake, the Dolphins had a lot of things go right in 2008, but they wouldn't have come close to winning the AFC East title without the performance of Pennington, who was nothing short of spectacular. Don't believe me? His passer rating was the second-best in the league and he became the first QB in LEAGUE HISTORY to throw for at least 3,500 yards with no more than seven interceptions. Here's the catch, though: Look at Pennington's history, and you'll see he's never played 16 games two consecutive years. On the contrary, his pattern has been very good to great years in even-numbered seasons, and bad, injury-riddled seasons in odd-numbered years. Well, it's 2009. Backup Chad Henne looks like a good prospect for the future, but it's doubtful he's ready now to lead this team to the playoffs.

2. Are the rookie cornerbacks ready?:
Second-round pick Sean Smith made a couple of spectacular interceptions in the preseason, and he has the look of a future star at the potential. But it WAS the preseason, and he IS a rookie, so there no doubt will be growing pains for him as a rookie starter. First-round pick Vontae Davis, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as impressive as one would have expected given his draft status, although he did get better as the preseason went along. Bottom line is those two enter the season as unknowns because of their rookie status, which is a concern because this isn't a team that has a lot at cornerback beyond veteran starter Will Allen and those two.

3. Covering kicks:
The Dolphins were nothing short of brutal on special teams in 2008, and we saw some of the same things in the preseason, capped by a punt return for a touchdown allowed against New Orleans in the finale. Sure, those were backups on the field at that time, but there was at least one major special teams breakdown in every single preseason game, whether it be a long return allowed or a fumble. The Dolphins were able to overcome their special teams deficiencies last year in part because of a soft schedule, but we all know they have the toughest schedule in the league this year (based on last year's standings). Regardless, this is team that's not nearly overpowering enough to be able to overcome problems in the kicking game.

Tyler Dunne (BuffaloFootballReport.com):

1. The direction of the offense:
The offensive coordinator was fired. The no-huddle offense was shut down in the preseason. And it's really hard to tell if this year's offense is any more explosive than last year... even with Terrell Owens. T.O.'s presence should help but Buffalo's offense was droned to a yawn all August. What's the direction? New coordinator Alex Van Pelt vows to push the ball downfield more. But at the end of the day, Trent Edwards is the one making those decisions. The unit needs to develop some cohesion fast and settle on an identity. Van Pelt had only 10 days to gear up for his new position. Buffalo insists the hurry-up will stick. We'll see. Too often this preseason, the Bills offense raced on and off the field.

2. Trent Edwards' blindside:
When the Bills traded Jason Peters to Philadelphia, they figured Langston Walker could simply move from right tackle to left tackle and everything would be fine. Wrong. The mammoth, slow-footed Walker never materialized into a productive left tackle through camp, so the team cut him loose. Demetrius Bell, a 7th round pick two years ago, will suddenly be protecting Edwards' blindside. That's a daunting task. Obviously, the Bills are thinking long term here. They like Bell a lot and figure they'll take their lumps now with the future in mind. Still, you have to wonder if Bell is ready. He's athletic and has shown quick feet, but this decision remains a colossal risk. You can bet every opposing defense will throw the kitchen sink at Bell.

3. Getting heat on the QB:
It took the entire training camp, but the Bills were finally able to reach an agreement with first round pick Aaron Maybin. And the sigh from the front office could be heard throughout Western NY. Buffalo needs Maybin to produce now. Not later. Right now. Aaron Schobel, returning from a foot injury, didn't look explosive during the preseason. Chris Kelsay is a run stopper at best. Maybin has the raw speed around the edge to be the disruptive force Buffalo's defense desperately needs. He had a couple sacks in the preseason that hinted he's ready to play now. With classic, pick-you-apart quarterbacks Tom Brady and Chad Pennington in the division, Maybin must be a game-changer. The Bills' defense is solid, but lacks playmakers. In Maybin, they hope they finally found one.

Dan Leberfeld (Jets Confidential):

1. Starting a rookie quarterback:
No matter how highly-rated the quarterback was coming out of college, this is a tough proposition. There is a good chance Mark Sanchez is going to be special one day, but the odds are stacked against this happening in his rookie year. Usually rookie quarterbacks are very inconsistent.

But one factor that gives him a fighting chance is he was drafted by a pretty good team that went 9-7 last year. So often first round quarterbacks go to bad teams and when they enter the line-up they don't have a good supporting cast around them. Sanchez has a pretty good team around him, so that should help.

2. The lack of a dominant pass rusher:
There is no doubt Rex Ryan is is a really smart defensive mind, and did a great job in Baltimore. But last time I checked, he didn't bring Terrell Suggs with him to New York, and he doesn't have a Suggs-type pass rusher on this Jets team. Vernon Gholston doesn't look like that kind of player so far, and Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are solid players, but not scary pass rusher.

So unless somebody emerges like Marques Murrell, Rex is going to have to manufacture the pass rush with his creative schemes.

Not matter how smart you are as a defensive coach, it helps to have a pass rusher that forces opposing offensives to slide the protection to that person.

3. The need for a big play WR:
The Jets have a lot of steady targets in the passing game like TE Dustin Keller and wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Chansi Stuckey, but they like a star target in their passing game, somebody that scares the daylights out of the opposition. They can certainly win with the cast of targets that they have in the passing game, but they could use a big, physical, game-changing wide-out who can bailout the QB when the throw isn't perfect. There need for this type of guy is why they were rumored to be interested in 6-6 Plaxico Burress during the off-season.

The Jets don't have a big target at wide receiver or tight end, and that means that Mark Sanchez doesn't have the margin of error most quarterbacks need with their throws, especially rookies.

Jon Scott (Patriots Insider):

1. Protecting Brady:
There is no greater priority than protecting Tom Brady at this time. New England has made the bold choice ot go with just two quarterbacks on their roster, Brady and undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. If Brady gets hurt, the Patriots can flush their season quickly. There will be no repeat performance like Matt Casssel was able to generate as Hoyer looked average in preseason and has a long way to go to learn the offense or any NFL defense.

2. Establish a Running Game:
If Tom Brady is forced to run the spread offense all year, it only takes one team – one player willing to risk it all – to blitz Brady into oblivion. Sure the Patriots might win, but Brady runs the risk of getting crushed by a 300-pound defender. If New England can find a way to get Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney on track, the Patriots offense will be extremely dangerous. A multi-dimensional offense commanded by Brady could make the Patriots even more opportunistic than the 2007 team. Part of Matt Cassel’s success in 2008 came on the back of the 6th best rushing offense which gained 142.4 yards per game last year.

3. Prevent the Big Play:
The Patriots have a horrid track record of giving up the big play. Though the defense has found a way to prevent opponents from scoring in the Red Zone, their big play susceptibility could become their undoing. The Patriots were the second worst team in the league last year giving up 12 plays of 40 yards or more. Newcomers Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs, Darius Butler and Patrick Chung will be counted on to address the issue. Bodden and Springs are a significant upgrade over Ellis Hobbs, Lew Sanders and Deltha O’Neal. Even Rodney Harrison thinks Chung will become an impact player.

MORE:
Dan Leberfeld covers the New York Jets for Jets Confidential Magazine
Alain Poupart covers the Miami dolphins as the Associate Editor of Dolphin Digest
Tyler Dunne covers the Buffalo Bills for the Buffalo Football Report
Jon Scott covers the New England Patriots for Patriots Insider


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