NFL Nation: Greg Williams
Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC South team in 2013?
Houston Texans: Receiver DeVier Posey would be the guy, but he is recovering from a serious Achilles injury suffered in the playoff loss in New England. It’s a veteran roster with known commodities at most spots. Brandon Brooks played some in the final six games of the season. The second-year right guard has shed some weight and will be in far better position to unseat fellow 2012 draft pick Ben Jones for the starting job.
Indianapolis Colts: In Oakland, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey endured frequent coaching, coordinator and quarterback changes. The hope is some stability will help the him settle in and become more regularly productive in Pep Hamilton’s offense with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. Perhaps in a new setting, Heyward-Bey's speed will translate better into game speed, and he can grow into a target better able to make catches outside his frame.
Jacksonville Jaguars: We’ll have to see just how much the Jaguars add at cornerback in the draft, but second-year man Mike Harris is in prime position to establish himself as a primary contributor. He currently rates as the No. 1 corner on the team where Alan Ball is second. However, Harris is 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, and new coach Gus Bradley is coming from Seattle, where his defensive system put a premium on big corners.
Tennessee Titans: Outside linebacker Akeem Ayers certainly made his share of plays in his second season. Near the end he was used more and more as a pass-rusher, and I believe the Titans are considering him as one of their three top rushers -- thus the team’s lack of urgency in adding another defensive end. New senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams is more rush-focused than coordinator Jerry Gray, a former defensive back. That could help Ayers take another big step.
The league also provided part of a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, explaining why he chose to stick with the initial punishment.
Here’s an excerpt of Goodell’s letter to Smith, provided by the NFL:
“At our meeting in September, you confirmed that you expressed approval of the program when it was first presented to you by (defensive coordinator Gregg Williams). You also confirmed that you provided money to the program pool both at the beginning of the season and again during the playoffs. I understand that you deny that anyone intended to inflict injury on any opposing player. Even in the face of repeated appeals to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart the guy off,’ you and others now claim that the objective was instead merely to ‘knock the wind out’ of your opponents, requiring them to leave the game for only a play or two. From the standpoint of player safety, fair competition, and the integrity of the game, the issues with which I am concerned today, this kind of after-the-fact explanation is little more than wordplay that, in my judgment as Commissioner, offers no basis on which to excuse conduct that does not belong in professional football. Such behavior is conduct detrimental without regard to the precise extent or duration of the disability intended.’’
I know a lot of New Orleans fans have been screaming for evidence. I think you’ve got it right there. Smith confirmed he approved of the bounty program and helped fund it.
1. Dome-field advantage: The Saints have been unstoppable at the Superdome this season, setting an NFL record by scoring 339 points (42.4 per game) in their eight home games, all of which they won. The Lions held the Saints well below that average per game in the teams' Week 13 matchup but still absorbed a 31-17 loss. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the hottest quarterback in the NFL, and overall the Saints are the most difficult first-round opponent the Lions could have drawn. Anything can happen, but the Lions will enter this game as deep underdogs.
2. Slowing Brees: Every game stands on its own merits, but it's worth noting the Lions' defense -- which was missing only one starter -- gave up a record-breaking passing day Sunday to Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) was sidelined but appears on track to return for the playoffs. How much difference can Delmas make? If the Lions gave up 480 yards and six touchdown passes to Flynn, how much might Brees light them up for? That will be the central talking point this week. Brees finished this record-breaking season with 5,476 yards and 46 touchdown passes. That's an average of 342 yards and nearly three touchdowns per game.
3. Managing the blitz: Entering Sunday's game, no NFL quarterback had been blitzed on a lower percentage of his dropbacks (23.7) than the Lions' Matthew Stafford. That makes sense, considering the number of skilled Lions pass-catchers who are left in favorable coverage against a blitz. But the Saints love to blitz under defensive coordinator Greg Williams, making for an interesting fulcrum point in this matchup. It's worth noting that Sunday, the Packers blitzed Stafford 34.4 percent of the time and dramatically limited his production on those plays. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Stafford completed nine of his 21 passes against the blitz for 154 yards and an interception Sunday. Against the Packers' standard pass rush, Stafford completed 27 of 38 passes for 366 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
The Saints, as you might recall, entered last season's kickoff game against the Minnesota Vikings with their reputation as blitzing defense intact. They had battered and bruised quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, and there was every reason to believe they would follow a similar path in the teams' September 2010 rematch.
Instead, defensive coordinator Greg Williams opened in a relatively conservative Cover-2 look that took the Vikings by surprise and left them out of sorts for most of the Saints' 14-9 victory. After his team went three-and-out on five of its 10 possessions and managed only 12 first downs, then-coach Brad Childress said: "I have to take my hat off to them. It was set up as a big blitz game. The blitz was very, very infrequent. So they did a nice job with that."
As they prepare for Thursday night's game against the Saints, the Green Bay Packers are no doubt expecting the proverbial unexpected. Coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday that his previous Packers teams have seen "between 20 and 30 percent" of so-called unscouted looks in their season openers, making it doubly important to "stay true to your base principles," he said.
The term "unscouted look" usually refers to a scheme, play, coverage or blitz that a team has never before put on film. That isn't exactly what the Saints did to the Vikings last season; they had played Cover-2 before under Williams but rarely for the majority of a game. But there is little doubt that the Saints, and probably the Packers for that matter, will do something new or totally out of character Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
The unscouted look is an especially important weapon for established teams. Both the Packers and Saints are entering their sixth season under the same head coach. Both Williams and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers are entering their third seasons. There shouldn't be many secrets between these teams.
But that's what makes Week 1 among of the most intriguing points on the NFL calendar. Somebody is going to come up with something new that causes a ripple effect on the way to victory. We'll know in about 60 hours or so what it is. (What? You expected me to tell you what it's going to be?)
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.
Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay is that it made Atlanta’s offseason needs so clear. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have said, in no uncertain terms, the Falcons need to become more explosive on both sides of the ball, and they have established a track record of working together to get what they want.
It’s no secret that Atlanta’s biggest need is to improve the pass rush. Veteran John Abraham stepped up with 13.5 sacks last season, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. Even if Abraham produces another big season, the Falcons need another defensive end to help provide a more consistent pass rush. Although the team used its first-round pick on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon last year, another athletic outside linebacker is a possibility, because Mike Peterson is getting older and Stephen Nicholas might leave via free agency. Speed and athleticism also will be targets on offense. The Falcons have a good power running game with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, but need a speed back to make some big plays. Roddy White is one of the game’s best receivers, but the Falcons would like to add a speedster to stretch the field.
Offensive line also is a possibility, because the Falcons have several possible free agents and it remains to be seen if the team is really sold on left tackle Sam Baker.
New coach Ron Rivera takes over a roster that’s not as depleted as last year’s 2-14 record might suggest. There are some areas of strength -- defensive end, running back and linebacker. Some consistent play at quarterback would go a long way toward making the Panthers competitive quickly. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will take a leap on Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert in the draft, or try to get a veteran through free agency or via trade.
Whatever the Panthers decide at quarterback, there are some other big needs that will have to be addressed in the draft. The middle of the defensive line has been a problem spot the past two seasons, and Auburn’s Nick Fairley is a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. The wild card in all this could be LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Some say he’s the best player in the draft, and there is uncertainty about the futures of cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble. The rule of thumb is that you don’t take a cornerback with the top pick of the draft. But Peterson might be the most complete player in the draft, so the Panthers have to at least consider breaking the rules.
New Orleans Saints
Assuming the restricted free agent tags hold up with a new labor agreement, the Saints should be able to keep a pretty strong roster intact. That said, there are some obvious areas of need. On defense, the Saints could use another pass-rusher to team with Will Smith. Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson were adequate last season, but not dynamic. The basis of a Gregg Williams defense is to create turnovers, and that starts with a pass rush up front. An athletic outside linebacker also is high on the list. The Saints thought they had enough young guys last year to let Scott Fujita walk in free agency. But several of those young linebackers were injured, and that spot became a problem.
Offensively, the Saints are pretty well set at the skill positions, but it’s possible they could at least look to add another running back at some point. Reggie Bush's future remains uncertain and the Saints were hampered by injuries at running back last season. Although the Saints drafted Charles Brown last year, offensive tackle could be addressed again. Brown might get a shot to start ahead of Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, but the Saints might like to add one more person to that competition.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite a surprising 10-6 record last season, the rebuilding job is far from done in Tampa Bay. The Bucs still need to upgrade the talent level at several positions, and defensive end appears to be first on the list. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder ended up as the starters last season and weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush. After using the first two picks of last year’s draft on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the Bucs would like to surround them with young talent on the outside.
The Bucs could be looking for a middle linebacker if Barrett Ruud leaves via free agency, and more depth at outside linebacker also is a possibility. The uncertain future of suspended safety Tanard Jackson means the Bucs might have to look for depth at that position. The offensive needs aren’t as big, but the Bucs could use a running back to help share the load with LeGarrette Blount.
New Denver leader John Elway told the Denver Post he will ask permission to talk to Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams has head-coaching experience. Fewell is also garnering interest from San Francisco, Cleveland and Carolina.
Denver will also talk to Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and Denver interim coach Eric Studesville. There has been talk that Mularkey could be the leading candidate because of his ability to work with a young quarterback such as Tim Tebow.
But Denver does have some major shoring up to do on defense. It allowed a league-high 471 points this season. Talking to coaches like Fewell and Williams is a sign Denver is prepared to do its due diligence in this process.
Also, Elway told the Denver Post he didn’t get the chance to talk to Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh about the job while Elway served as an honorary Stanford captain in the team’s Orange Bowl win Monday. Still, if Elway wants to talk to Harbaugh, I’m sure he’ll get the opportunity.
This week or next week, or likely both, he will pull film from Jan. 16, 1999. He played his first game against a Greg Williams-coached defense that day, and the Titans left the RCA Dome with a 19-16 upset of the Colts en route to their lone Super Bowl appearance.
Manning and the Colts have only lost to Williams one other time.
Here’s a look at Manning against Williams so far:
“[Williams’] scheme is very complex, but his players make it work,” Manning told Indiana reporters this week. “[Darren] Sharper is kind of the quarterback of the defense back there. [Jonathan] Vilma kind of gets the linebackers straight. They have excellent pass rushers. They’re really solid across the board. It gives you plenty to think about.
“It is, I think, in some ways a benefit to have two weeks to prepare. You have a lot of film to watch. One thing about playing the Jets last week was we had just played them. In a sense we had already had some time to prepare for them. To get ready for a team like the Saints that shows you multiple looks, the extra time to prepare is a benefit.”
The Colts figured out the Jets’ defense in relatively short order, and things went downhill fast for New York from there. The Saints would be wise to have multiple alternatives at the ready. When Manning figured out Plan A, switch to B and so on. It’s one way to slow him down. It’s another to have the personnel and the mindset to execute multiple things.
We linked earlier this week to a radio interview with Williams talking about Manning. Virtually every defensive coordinator preparing for Manning says the same things. Very few can make it happen.
And Deshawn Zombie visited these numbers earlier in the week and didn’t draw any conclusions in Williams’ favor.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Jacksonville at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET
In the wake of Richard Collier's shooting, the Jaguars are likely to be in an all-or-nothing state. Are they drained from hospital visits and sleepless nights considering whether their teammate would survive the night? Or do they rally on his behalf, calling on a reserve to help provide some good news for him and the city? I think we'll have a feeling for which way the Jags go in the first five minutes of the game.
Never mind the players for a moment. Many of us are expecting another low scoring, defensive battle like last year's 13-10 Tennessee win at Jacksonville on opening day. But it could amount to a coming out party for two offensive coaches. Dirk Koetter, the Jags second-year offensive coordinator, now has a better handle on what he's got and a better comfort level calling an NFL game. The Titans Mike Heimerdinger is back for a second term in the same post. Neither coordinator was showing much in the preseason. Now we'll see some of the plays they rate as their favorites. That should make a big difference, shouldn't it?
While it's a huge game, it seems to me the Titans are the team that can better handle losing it. Jeff Fisher's teams have a history of starting slow, and have often managed to dig out of it. The Titans couldn't get anything going offensively with their first team in the preseason, so it won't be a surprise if they don't move the ball effectively. Jacksonville, meanwhile, is a popular pick to catch or pass Indianapolis. They seemed to be gradually ramping up in the preseason. How will they handle a loss after a month of listening to all the big expectations? Maybe better than I imagine. They did, after all, lose their opener to Tennessee last season in Jacksonville and recover just fine.
It's been a football lifetime since Gregg Williams was the defensive coordinator for the Oilers/Titans, so it's hard to imagine such a thing would carry over. But it's still worth a mention: while his defenses beat some very good quarterbacks, they also tended to go after young and unproven guys and see it backfire. Remember Ryan Leaf? With Young's questionable decision-making and ability to dodge a rusher, is it better to send extra people at him or to complicate coverages and await mistakes? Six of his 30 regular season interceptions have landed in the arms of Jaguars' defenders.
Houston at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET
Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes averaged a ridiculous 18.1 yards per catch last year. For the Texans to cap that, they need to find a consistent pass rush and they need cornerback Fred Bennett to prove he can stick with Holmes. I'd also expect the Steelers to get a third wide receiver on the field in order to put Houston in nickel to get chances to test DeMarcus Faggins.
Against a 3-4, Houston's offensive line is likely to need to cut more linebackers as part of Alex Gibbs' zone blocking scheme. It's one thing to take down bigger linemen, another to get to the second level and deal with more athletic players.
Indications to this point are that the Texans may feel the need to pass to set up the run instead of vice versa. Either way, we find out if a couple skill position players like Steve Slaton and Kevin Walter can be factors or get cancelled out once the games begin to count.
The Texans won in Pittsburgh in 2002 despite gaining only 47 yards of total offense. The Texans forced five turnovers, returning three for touchdowns.
Chicago at Indianapolis, 8:15 p.m. ET
The Peyton Manning questions are twofold: How does he do on a left knee that kept him out of the entire preseason after he had an infected bursa sac removed from it on July 14? And how does he do without his center, Jeff Saturday? Will Saturday's replacement, probably Jamey Richard, work to adjust things at the line of scrimmage the way Saturday did? Will another lineman? Will Manning take on even more responsibility? Look for Manning to get rid of the ball even faster than usual with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai looking to break a tackle and get yards after the catch. The Colts aren't going to ask Manning to stand in very long with three new offensive linemen working against a defensive front that includes Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Harris will surely work to make it a long night for the likely center Jamey Richard.
Lucas Oil Stadium makes its regular season debut on national television Sunday night. Will the crowd be able to influence a game the way it did at the RCA Dome? It's a much more difficult task with all the additional square footage under the roof, be it open or closed.
Kick coverage is always a Colts' issue. Will they kick to Devin Hester as they did to open the Super Bowl two years ago? Can Courtney Roby (kicks) and Keiwan Ratliff (punts) help the offense out with some field position on returns?
Spotlight issues, obviously: Manning's knee, Dwight Freeney's foot, Bo Sanders' shoulder
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat describes 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan as a competitor. Officials once ejected him from a college game after two penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. And when a friend beat him in tennis, O'Sullivan secretly took lessons to make sure he prevailed in the rematch.
Clark Judge of CBSSports.com picks the Seahawks to hold off Arizona in the division, followed by the Rams and 49ers. Judge on the 49ers: "There's something wrong here, and Mike Nolan has one year to fix it. Frankly, I can't see it happening, partly because Seattle is better and mostly because Nolan hasn't done anything in three years. In fact, the 49ers last season looked worse than in 2006, and that's not a good sign. It's now or never."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks expect Matt Hasselbeck to start the opener after the quarterback returned to practice without further back spasms. Also, veteran kicker Olindo Mare gets the call in Week 1, but Brandon Coutu remains on the roster for now.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Hasselbeck consulted a chiropractor in dealing with his back issues. Also, the team hasn't settled on a punt returner for Week 1.
Also from Farnsworth: Mike Holmgren built his reputation as a pass-oriented coach, but the running game was the focus this offseason. Perhaps that is a good thing given all the injuries at receiver.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks think they'll be "fine" without suspended defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, even though it's unsettling to lose a starter.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Ricky Manning has lots to learn before helping the Rams' secondary. What went wrong for the cornerback in Chicago? "I just had a bad season. It was a combination of me messing up. It was a combination of being put in uncomfortable situations, or playing uncomfortable techniques."
Cam Inman of the Contra Costa Times says the 49ers must improve their pass rush this season. That means the team must fully utilize free-agent addition Justin Smith.
Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News asked the 49ers about Ahmad Brooks' off-field issues. Brooks has failed drug tests. In April, a woman accused Brooks of punching her in the face. Coach Mike Nolan: "We have the structure and the manpower and the people in place that can allow us, I guess you can say if that's the right choice of words, to take on someone that we feel with some assistance that we can do the right thing with."
Also from Brown: Since 2004, the 49ers have won 28.1 percent of their games, better than only the Raiders. And no team has scored fewer points than San Francisco during that time. This being September, there's reason for optimism.
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle made follow-up calls after the 49ers signed Brooks: "His agent, Greg Williams, couldn't be reached for comment, and the attorney for the woman did not return a phone call."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com wonders if the Cardinals will name disgruntled receiver Anquan Boldin as a team captain again. Coach Ken Whisenhunt says he sees no dropoff in leadership from Boldin. Also, Kurt Warner disputes the notion that he's injury prone.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals open their season on the road for the 19th time in the last 21 seasons. Hot weather at Sun Devil Stadium used to be an issue early in the season, but the Cardinals have an indoor stadium now.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says Matt Leinart is running out of chances in Arizona, and the quarterback must be ready when called upon. Leinart is right when he describes himself as a very young quarterback. I wouldn't give up on a first-round pick after 16 starts and a couple of poor exhibition games.