AFC West: Troy Polamalu
- Denver star pass-rusher Von Miller practice fully Thursday after being limited Wednesday with a hip injury. Also, nickel cornerback Chris Harris practiced on a limited basis for the first time since hurting his ankle in Week 1.
- Oakland middle linebacker Rolando McClain is back at practice Thursday after being out Wednesday with a concussion. He should be able to play against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
- Kansas City receiver Steve Breaston (wrist) and cornerback Jalil Brown (groin) both practiced fully Thursday after not practicing Wednesday and guard Ryan Lilja (back) practiced on a limited basis after being held out Wednesday.
- Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison (knee) and safety Troy Polamalu (safety) are expected to miss Sunday’s game against the Raiders. Harrison has been out for several weeks and Polamalu missed last week’s win over the Jets.
- Peyton Manning made fun of himself Thursday at the Broncos’ practice.
- The Raiders-Steelers game will be shown on local television.
- The Chargers’ home game against Atlanta, though, is blacked out on local television.
But the purpose of this post is to predict which defensive player in the AFC West will have the best season in 2012. There are plenty to choose from, including some young, up-and-coming stars. In fact, the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers all drafted defense in the first round of this year’s draft, while the Raiders didn’t make their first selection until the third round.
All of these players are great. Some are ascending like Houston and Houston. A few could fall off as they age another year like future Hall of Famers Bailey and Seymour. But overall, I am pretty confident these nine players will prove to be very difficult for opposing offenses to play against.
Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the three defensive studs who have the best chance to emerge as the best in the AFC West in 2012.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: At this time next year, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Berry was considered the best safety in all of football. Earl Thomas and stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed -- along with Weddle -- could have something to say about that, but Berry is a unique talent who simply can do everything well at this position.
We have just seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he is capable of doing on the field. But of course, the issue in 2011 for Berry was getting on the field, as an ACL injury derailed his second season before it started.
If we knew Berry was going to be the same physical specimen in terms of his movement skills as he was when he entered the league, I might just pull the trigger on making Berry my selection as the best defensive player in the division for 2012. I couldn’t be higher on this young man overall, and from all reports he is back to full health. Still, I want to see it for myself. With that being said, I can’t wait to scout him this preseason. Berry is special.
Tamba Hali, LB, Kansas City Chiefs: Hali is one of the very best -- and chronically underrated -- defensive players in the entire league. And he seems to get better every season. Hali is truly an elite edge pass-rusher.
In the past, Hali disrupted quarterbacks consistently even though the Chiefs didn’t have a dangerous edge presence on his opposite side. Now, with the emergence of Justin Houston, Hali should be primed for the best season of his fantastic career.
The relentless and explosive Hali is more than just a great pass-rusher, though. In fact, he plays the run right at him very well with excellent strength, leverage, hand-usage and recognition skills. But Hali also has to be accounted for as a backside pursuit player who can track down a running back from behind.
As quarterbacks around the league and especially those in the AFC West know all too well, Hali closes on his prey about as well as any upfield player in the league. As you can see from the players I have listed -- not to mention Romeo Crennel’s defensive mind -- I am expecting Kansas City to have one of the very best defenses in football this season.
Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos: You could certainly make the argument that Miller was the best rookie in the NFL last season. Many thought Miller was miscast as a strongside linebacker in Denver’s 4-3 defense -- and I actually tend to agree, which just shows how amazing Miller would be as an every-down 3-4 outside linebacker.
Some of the very best players can transcend scheme. They are just great pretty much no matter where you put them. That applies to Miller, who is obviously renowned as a fantastic upfield pass-rusher, but also proved to be extremely effective as a run defender and even in coverage. He will only improve in these departments as well, especially with his coverage skills.
Much like Hali, Miller is an extreme handful versus the run at him or away. This guy is just flat out fast, and few pursue the ball carrier as well. But not only is Miller fast, he is also extremely quick, nimble, agile and demonstrates fantastic balance and awareness in every phase. If the Manning experiment works out and forces the Broncos’ opponents to throw the football more as a result, that will translate into more opportunities for Miller to attack the quarterback, which is what he does best.
After dominating for about the first two-thirds of his rookie season, Miller’s play dropped off a bit after he broke his thumb. Obviously that can have a major effect on a defensive player who relies on hand usage to take on blocks, defeat pass protectors and tackle the ball carrier as much as Miller. He also could have hit a bit of a rookie wall to go along with that substantial injury he suffered.
I do not expect his play to fall off in any manner in 2012. In fact, I am so high on Miller as an overall player that he will be my preseason prediction for the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The Denver safety was named to the Pro Bowl on Thursday, replacing Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu because of an injury. It is Dawkins’ ninth Pro Bowl — tied with John Lynch for the second-most career Pro Bowl berths by a safety.
Expect Dawkins, 38, to try to play. He missed all but a quarter of Denver’s final five games because of a neck injury, but the injury has been improving steadily in the past few days. Dawkins, a potential Hall of Famer, wouldn’t have accepted the invitation if he wasn’t going to be cleared to play.
Dawkins told a Denver television station last weekend that he will consider retirement. He played the past three seasons with Denver and has been the team’s undisputed leader. Dawkins played well in 2011 when healthy, recording 51 tackles and three sacks.
Dawkins joins a strong Denver contingent — the team's most at the Pro Bowl since 2001 — for the Jan. 29 game in Honolulu. Running back Willis McGahee and tackle Ryan Clady were named to the team as injury replacements. Cornerback Champ Bailey, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller are also representing the AFC West champions.
Roethlisberger practiced fully Thursday after being limited in practice Wednesday because of a lingering ankle injury. However, Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey did not practice Thursday after having a setback in his recovery from an ankle injury.
Pittsburgh defensive stars, linebacker James Harrison (toe) and safety Troy Polamalu (calf) missed practice for the second straight day. Still, at this point, they are expected to play Sunday.
Denver safely Brian Dawkins (neck) and fullback Spencer Larsen (knee) continued to be out of practice. They are not expected to play Sunday at this point. Receiver/returner Eddie Royal was limited Thursday after sating out Wednesday practice with a toe problem.
In other AFC West news:
- Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin will reportedly interview in Miami. He interviewed with the Chiefs on Wednesday and he is considered a legitimate candidate there.
It not a surprise. Dawkins has been dealing with the injury for a month and there are some long-term concerns. He did not play last week against Kansas City. Unless he quickly heals, the odds are Denver’s vocal leader will not play against the Steelers. Monday, the 38-year-old spoke to his young teammates about what to expect this week.
Meanwhile, Denver fullback Spencer Larsen did not practice, either. He suffered a MCL sprain Week 17. He likely won’t play. Denver receiver/returner Eddie Royal did not practice because of a toe injury.
For Pittsburgh, linebacker James Harrison (toe), safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and defensive end Brett Keisel (groin) did not practice Wednesday. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (ankle) was limited. He said Wednesday he had a setback in his recovery in Week 17.
That’s just the way life is going for the Kansas City Chiefs. In a wicked stream of terrible blows, the Chiefs may have just endured the blow that will be the hardest and most difficult to overcome. Berry is out for the season with a torn ACL he suffered Sunday in a stunning 41-7 home loss to Buffalo for the defending AFC West champions. I know it’s early and anything can happen, but I don’t see how the Chiefs work their way of out this hole to make a strong division-title defense.
In just his second season, Berry is the team’s most important defensive player, in a virtual dead heat with champion pass-rusher Tamba Hali. As a rookie, Berry made the Pro Bowl and he established himself as one of the team’s most reliable players. The No. 5 overall pick of the draft was instinctive and he made key plays. Most importantly, he played every snap of the season.
He didn’t make it through the first game this year.
It makes you wonder if this is going to be one of those seasons for the Chiefs, who have endured a stunning spate of injuries. In the preseason finale, fellow 2010 rookie star, tight end Tony Moeaki, blew out his knee and was lost for the season. Add a thumb injury to No. 1 pick, receiver Jonathan Baldwin, that he reportedly suffered in a late-camp fight with teammate Thomas Jones, and a season-ending Achilles injury suffered after camp by key free-agent pickup Brandon Siler and the Chiefs are up against it.
And that’s not even taking into account how unorganized and unprepared they look on the field.
The show has to march on and the Chiefs have to find a way to move on without Berry. They surely will look at the waiver wire, but it will mean bigger roles for the likes of Kendrick Lewis and Jon McGraw. Berry can’t be replaced, though. He was an elite presence at the back of the defense that gave Kansas City’s defense both creditability and toughness. This is the next Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu we’re talking about.
How can the Chiefs rebound from this blow? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn’t know if they can.
“Berry -- like Moeaki on defense -- is one of those guys that is a matchup beater,” Williamson said. “He can hang with any type of receiving threat, a [Oakland running back] Darren McFadden or [San Diego tight end] Antonio Gates for example. That is invaluable. Not only is it brutal for this season, but also both these injuries slow down the long-term growth of the franchise. It’s a killer.”
John from Cleveland wants to know if I think Kansas City rookie safety Eric Berry will make an immediate impact.
Bill Williamson: Yes, I do, John. I really like the pick. The early reports from Kansas City on Berry have been positive. I’m a big believer in how a smart, physical safety can change defenses. Look at what guys like Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu have done for their clubs. I’m not saying Berry is going to be as good as these two stars, but he has a chance to change this defense. I think we’ll see a positive impact right away.
Raider Bob from San Diego wants to know if I think the Chargers could end up trading Vincent Jackson and, if so, could the wide receiever end up in Oakland.
BW: No, I don’t see San Diego trading Jackson to Oakland. But I could see a scenario where Jackson eventually gets traded. That would likely only happen if he does hold out into the season and Chargers feel like there would be no chance to repair the relationship. If Jackson does stay away and it gets ugly, this could be a viable option for San Diego. The same goes for left tackle Marcus McNeill, who is also expected to holdout. Both players would likely fetch a lot in a deal but I just can’t see the Chargers trading these two impact players to a divisional rival.
John Galloway from Weston, Mo., wants to know why Robert Ayers was benched for the first two days of last week’s mandatory minicamp in Denver.
BW: The truth has not come out. But I do know McDaniels was pretty salty about it when he was asked, so he was clearly peeved. After sitting out Friday and Saturday, Ayers did work some Sunday. McDaniels said Sunday that the situation was resolved. Ayers must have done something to upset his coach but nothing too serious. Ayers has to stay focused and stay out of the doghouse once training camp starts. He has to bounce back from a poor rookie season and he needs all the extra work he can get as he tries to show he was worth being the No. 18 overall pick last year.
Dimitroff relayed a conversation he had with Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli. The two worked together in New England. Here is what Dimitroff told Pioli about Tennessee safety Eric Berry:
"I was talking to Scott Pioli about Berry, and I said, 'Scott, this guy's your pick.' And he said, 'You know how I feel about safeties that early.'''
This doesn’t necessarily mean the Chiefs won’t take Berry if he’s available at No. 5. Many observers believe the top choices for Kansas City are Berry and Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung.
However, it suggests Pioli subscribes to the age-old theory that safeties are not worth a top pick. Or Pioli, a very smart guy, could be sending out false information.
I’d hope the Chiefs are open to picking a safety early in the draft. Avoiding safeties early is an outdated thought and recently, dominant safeties such as Ed Reed in Baltimore, Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh and Bob Sanders in Indianapolis transformed entire defenses. Tell Polamalu that safeties aren’t important.
Berry is the top safety prospect in several years. He can change a defense and I think he’d be well worth the No. 5 pick. Only time will tell if Pioli agrees.
San Diego center Nick Hardwick’s recovery from an ankle injury he suffered in Week 1 has slowed. He has been ruled out of Sunday’s game at Denver. San Diego right tackle Jeromey Clary is questionable with an ankle injury.
According to a league spokesman, Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali was fined $5,000 for unnecessary roughness against Oakland on Sunday.
If the Raiders score 51 or less points in their final seven games they will set a new NFL mark for fewest points scored in a season.
The Chargers aren’t afraid to use the Wildcat formation.
The Raiders ar excited about the energy new quarterback Bruce Gradkowksi has brought this week. Let’s see if it will result in success as Gradkowski takes over for the benched JaMarcus Russell.
DENVER – The Steelers have taken a commanding lead after another Kyle Orton mistake.
Orton overthrew Brandon Marshall and the ball was intercepted by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu at the Denver 25 with just over eight minutes to go. Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger hit rookie receiver Mike Wallace on a 35-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-10. Pittsburgh leads 21-10.
Orton had a ball intercepted by Pittsburgh safety Tyrone Carter, who took it back 48 yards for a touchdown, in the first half. Orton has been intercepted three times this season.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
San Diego standout linebacker Shawne Merriman is listed as questionable to play Sunday night at Pittsburgh in a pivotal game for the Chargers.
Merriman made significant strides Friday by practicing fully. He has a groin injury and he practiced on a limited basis Thursday after practicing Wednesday. Merriman has missed significant parts of the past two games with the injury.
Meanwhile, San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson is listed as probable and he is expected to play at Pittsburgh. Tomlinson has practiced all week. He missed the past two games with an ankle injury.
For Pittsburgh, safety Troy Polamalu was ruled out by the Steelers. It's the third straight game he’ll miss with a knee injury. Expect San Diego to try to exploit Polamalu’s absence by getting the ball to tight end Antonio Gates often.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South
Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s games:
|Ezra Shaw/Getty Images|
|The Raiders need defensive end Richard Seymour to break out this week against Houston.|
Rivers needs to go deep: San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is becoming one of the premier deep-ball passers in the NFL. His deep passes are a thing of beauty. They are text book. Rivers has arrived as an elite player and he does few things wrong. But he has mastered the long ball and used it to his advantage in each game this season. Expect him to fire away Sunday at Pittsburgh. The early-season MVP candidate will try to take advantage of the absence of Pittsburgh star safety Troy Polamalu and try to shred the Steelers with a deep pass or two.
Time for the Broncos to show they are for real: The Broncos are one of seven unbeaten teams in the NFL and are the early surprise. Not much was expected from Denver in the first year of the Josh McDaniels’ era. But the team has been menacing on defense and timely on offense. Still, there are skeptics. Denver has beat Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland. But the easy ride is over. Denver starts a 10-game stretch in which they play eight sure playoff contenders. The rough road begins Sunday at home against Dallas. If the Broncos can dispatch the Cowboys, they will start to get respect and be considered a true playoff contender. If Denver loses to the visiting Cowboys, they will be cast as a pretender.
Chiefs have to compete in second leg of NFC East tour: Chiefs coach Todd Haley was criticized after last week’s 20-point loss at Philadelphia. Haley started to run the ball more in the second half instead of passing the ball even though the Chiefs were down by more than two touchdowns. The Chiefs have to find a way to stay in the game this week against the visiting Giants. Just like against the Eagles, the Chiefs will be badly overmatched. But this team, which competed well in the first two games under Haley, has to find a way to compete as they play their second of four straight games against NFC East competition.
This is the time for Russell to shine: I spoke to KC Joyner, the Football Scientist, this week. Joyner, a number cruncher supreme, said he believes Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell could have a decent game against Houston. If not, Joyner surmised, Russell really may be on his way to becoming a bust. Joyner thinks Houston has one of the worst defensive backfields in the league based on his computing. Houston’s cornerbacks are allowing big plays at an alarming rate. It’s a perfect opportunity for Russell to break out. If not, Russell (who has a 39.8 passers’ rating this season) may never break out.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
The San Diego Chargers may finally be getting some of their health back.
Star linebacker Shawne Merriman practiced on a limited basis on Thursday as the Chargers prepare for Sunday night’s game at Pittsburgh. Merriman didn’t practice Wednesday because of a groin injury that kept him out of parts of the past two games.
Merriman’s presence in some of practice Thursday doesn’t mean he will play Sunday, but it did represent some progress. Merriman will likely be a game-time decision.
Meanwhile, San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson made continued strides toward playing Sunday. He practiced fully for the second straight day. Tomlinson missed the past two games with an ankle injury. It appears, unless there is a setback, Tomlinson will play Sunday.
Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu did not practice Thursday. He is considered a long shot to play Sunday. He hurt his knee in the season opener.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
I caught up with Oakland superstar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Thursday in preparation for a future column.
In the midst of our conversation, I asked Asomugha if he had heard that he was tied for the top ranking of all defensive players for the Madden 10 game.
Asomugha was blown away by the news.
"That is very cool," he said. "I can't believe that. I really respect the people who do the research and it is a football-based system."
Asomugha is tied with Albert Haynesworth, Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed for the top spot. Until last year, Asomugha, who will be entering his seventh NFL season, was a well-kept secret. Now, after a season in which he rarely gave up receptions, the true shut-down cornerback is widely considered the premier player at his position.
"I know I'm not going to win many popularity contests, but this is nice," Asomugha said. "It means all the kids that will play Madden will pick me. For kids all that matters are video games ... It means a lot."
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Unlike AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky, I will not poke fun at AFC East blogger Tim Graham's choice of recreation. Just keep it safe, Tim.
But like Kuharsky, I do see some value in addressing Madden 10's player rankings. While it is not gospel, these rankings are a decent barometer of how a player is regarded. Some players who play (and some who used to play) in the AFC West, made the top 10 lists. Here's a look:
Quarterback: 7. Philip Rivers.
Running back: 3. LaDainian Tomlinson
Wide receiver: T-8. Brandon Marshall
Defense: T-1. Nnamdi Asomugha.