During the 2007 season, five teams were stung by passes of 20-plus yards at least 50 times, placing them at the bottom of the league in preventing big plays through the air. The Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns were the teams that opposing offenses were willing to roll the dice against when they wanted a quick strike downfield, because they just weren't able to consistently make the plays defensively.
By comparison, the league's best defense in this category was the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, the Colts not only allowed a league-low 20 passes of at least 20 yards, they were also tops in the NFL in touchdowns allowed off of big passing plays, surrendering just one long-ball touchdown during the entire regular season. Their success was a bit startling when you consider that Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden were first-time starters at the cornerback positions, and free safety Antoine Bethea was only in his second season as a starter — and pro football player — while he worked alongside veteran strong safety Bob Sanders.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished right behind the Colts with 24 long passes allowed, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots yielded 32, and the New York Jets rounded out the top five with just 34.
While the ability to mount an effective pass rush plays a major role in limiting the opposing quarterback's time to find a man open deep, let's take a look specifically at what the five worst teams in this category have done to improve their secondary as they prepare for the 2008 season.
Terrence McGee intercepts a pass against the Falcons during 2007 preseason action.
AP Photo/David Duprey
Buffalo: The Bills allowed a league-worst 55 catches of 20-plus yards, but the silver lining is that just four ended up in a touchdown for their opponents. Starting cornerbacks Terrence McGee and Jabari Greer return, and McGee in particular was a real bright spot for the Buffalo secondary. He batted away 21 pass attempts and made a team-leading four interceptions in 2007.
Joining the pair in competition for a starter's role during training camp is top draft pick Leodis McKelvin out of Troy University. A confident defender with excellent quickness and change of direction skills, McKelvin's main challenge will be to learn the playbook and scheme as quickly as possible so he that can unleash his natural athleticism to the Bills' advantage.
Third-year starting safety Donte Whitner has been a force against the run with 68 tackles in each of his first two NFL seasons, but his pass support is little more than adequate at this stage. The Bills will get a boost at the other safety position with the return of Ko Simpson, who broke his ankle during the first game of the 2007 campaign and was lost for the season. The big question with Simpson will be whether or not he's able to return to his previous level of play.
New Orleans: The Saints allowed 54 long completions, including a dozen for touchdowns, which was particularly disturbing after the team added former Colts cornerback Jason David through free agency prior to the 2007 season. In his debut season with the Saints, David didn't play at the level you'd expect for the $6.5 million he pocketed between his $3 million salary, $1.3 million signing bonus and a $2.2 million roster bonus.
After defending 11 passes and intercepting three during his 13 game appearances, David is going to need to step up in 2008. Both he and veteran Mike McKenzie will be challenged in training camp by second-round pick Tracy Porter out of Indiana and former Patriots veteran Randall Gay, who the team acquired via free agency during the offseason. Porter is a feisty, focused and poised young cornerback who should transition quickly to the pro game. .
At safety, Roman Harper and Josh Bullocks return as the incumbent starters and are a pair of young defenders who are developing nicely. Bullocks will be worth watching since he had offseason knee surgery and the team is thin in talent on their depth chart. If either player falls to injury during camp or early in the season, the Saints could wind up in the bottom five in deep passes allowed in 2008.
Baltimore: Is it possible that the usually formidable Ravens defense was third-worst in defending the deep pass? While you wouldn't think so off the top of your head, Baltimore allowed 53 passes that resulted in 20-plus-yard gains, including 14 touchdown passes.
Safety Ed Reed turned in another Pro Bowl-worthy performance with seven interceptions and 13 passes defended, but Dawan Landry's performance against the pass dropped off a bit after an impressive rookie campaign in 2006 when he grabbed five interceptions. Landry remains a real asset against the run, but didn't grab a single interception in 2007. The Ravens added a pair of rookies who will be worth watching — Tom Zbikowski, a third-round pick out of Notre Dame and Haruki Nakamura, the team's sixth-round selection out of Cincinnati.
At cornerback, health issues plagued the unit, with both Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle missing at least half the season. If they can both get a full 16 games in this season — or close to it — it's more likely that you'll see the Ravens in the top half of all teams against the long ball in 2008, not in the bottom five.
Nate Clements celebrates during the closing seconds of a December, 2007 victory over the Buccaneers.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
At safety, the team will likely line up with the same two starters as well — Michael Lewis and Mark Roman. Lewis made two interceptions while defending five passes, while Roman failed to register a single pick and was credited with just four passes defended.
Roman is coming off shoulder surgery, so second-year safety Dashon Goldson has been getting reps with the first team this year during OTAs. He's been raising some eyebrows with some heads-up plays, so a training camp battle could be looming.
Cleveland: The Browns nearly made the playoffs in 2007 despite giving up 50 passes for 20-plus yards, including eight for scores. Rookie Eric Wright started 13 games for Cleveland and did a respectable job, making 71 tackles, defending 11 passes and making his first career NFL interception. But he'll no longer be paired up with Leigh Bodden, who was traded, along with a draft pick so that the team could acquire DT Shaun Rogers from the Detroit Lions. The loss of Bodden could be a big hit for the Browns since he grabbed six interceptions, defended 15 and made 88 tackles.
Another second-year player, Brandon McDonald, is expected to be Wright's partner at the opposite corner this year. While he played in all 16 games in 2007, the former fifth-round pick out of Memphis has just two starts under his belt. He intercepted a pair of passes, defended 10 and made 13 tackles. Should either youngster falter, Cleveland has veteran Terry Cousin waiting in the wings after signing the free agent in late May. He's made 68 starts during his 11-year pro career.
Safety Sean Jones returns to anchor the secondary, paired up again with Brodney Pool. Jones has snagged five interception in each of his last two seasons and broke up 10 during the 2007 campaign. Pool, a second-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma, picked off two passes and defended six during his 16 starts last year.
Despite their youth, with three of the four players having established some chemistry last year, the Browns should see some improvement in their secondary. But how big of a jump they will make in one season will largely hinge on McDonald settling in quickly and Pool taking his level of play up a notch.
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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.
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