NFL Nation: Midseason Report

Midseason report: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 5, 2014
11/05/14
11:00
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One word sums up the first half of the Cincinnati Bengals' season unlike any other: injuries.

From the very first game this season, the Bengals' bumps and bruises have completely taken them out of their preseason game plan and altered the rhythm they were seeking offensively and defensively.

Key players such as Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green have been among the injured at some point this season -- some injured and reinjured. The syncopated manner in which the defense has been hit at linebacker caused defensive coordinator Paul Guenther last week to call this a "hell of a first year" on the job.

Midseason MVP: No player is more deserving of this than receiver Mohamed Sanu. Not only has he been a more than adequate fill-in for Green, who has missed parts of four games with a toe injury, he also has been the most versatile player on the offense. Before Green's return Sunday, Sanu accounted for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' offense in games the Pro Bowler missed. He had 460 yards of total offense in those games by catching, running and throwing the ball. He still has a perfect career passer rating after completing 50-yard and 18-yard passes. The latter throw was a touchdown pass completed to quarterback Andy Dalton. Sanu leads all Bengals pass-catchers with 39 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: Aside from juggling their roster to account for the injuries, the Bengals' biggest disappointment has been veteran right offensive tackle Andre Smith. Lately, penalties have defined the sixth-year lineman's play. He's had holds and false starts in four of the past five games, including three holding calls that negated a pair of big first-down gains and a potential game-winning touchdown run in an overtime tie with the Panthers. The Bengals have learned from the league that at least one of those calls was incorrectly applied, but still, Smith hasn't had his best start. Pro Football Focus has him at a minus-4.6 grade through eight games, currently the second-worst grade of his career.

Best moment: The most memorable moment of the Bengals' first half was Sanu's 18-yard touchdown pass across the field to Dalton in a 33-7 Week 3 win against the Titans. It was a head-turning play that embodied the creativity coordinator Hue Jackson's offense possesses. But this isn't really about the most memorable moment. This is about the best. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill's 60-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left in Sunday's win against the Jaguars fits. The play featured a rookie in the most significant moment of his career, sprinting for a gain that extended the Bengals' lead and iced a crucial win. A case could also be made for Green's 77-yard touchdown catch late in the season-opening win at Baltimore.

Worst moment: For kicker Mike Nugent, no moment was as bad this season as his missed field goal as time expired in the overtime game against the Panthers. Had he made the 36-yard field goal, he wouldn't have fielded many of the threatening tweets that he retweeted after the game, and the Bengals would be 6-2. For the entire team, however, the worst moment was the 60 minutes it was playing inside Lucas Oil Stadium. During the 27-0 loss at Indianapolis, nothing went right for the Bengals. Their offense was timid and slammed around by the Colts' aggressive defense. Their own battered defense kept missing tackles and was exhausted because the offense couldn't stay on the field.

Key to the second half: Defense will be the difference-maker down the stretch. The offense will be fine. Smith will come around. The presence of Green, Bernard and, eventually, Eifert will help. Once the Bengals get their weapons back, the offense will hum. On the other side of the ball, the Bengals need to remain aggressive and get good pressure. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins must play a key role in that. After a slow start, he's finally starting to get back to his old self following last year's ACL surgery. He'd have been the biggest first-half disappointment had he continued without pass disruptions and sacks. Three straight road games, a game against the Broncos and three of the last four against division foes make the second half a challenge.

Midseason Report: Detroit Lions

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
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The Detroit Lions are in a good position after the first half of the season, having already won more games this season (five) than last (four) and have seen improved play from a lot of their units.

So, for the most part, the Lions had a fairly even grading process. If they don’t make the playoffs, though, they could end up with a harsher final 2013 evaluation.

Midseason Report: Give 'em a B

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
3:50
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The Cincinnati debacle notwithstanding, the New York Jets have exceeded expectations with a 4-4 record. Some so-called experts didn't think they'd win four games for the entire season. You know who you are.

Before the season, I spoke to several personnel experts, and the consensus was that it was a six-win roster. A former Jets player, someone who understands the pulse of the team, told me in the preseason, "They're going to be terrible."

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Wilkerson
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesMuhammad Wilkerson is the defensive star through eight weeks, notching a career-high seven sacks.
They were terrible in Cincinnati and in Tennessee, but the Jets aren't a terrible team. Despite having only one or two blue-chip players, DE Muhammad Wilkerson and maybe C Nick Mangold, they've managed to hang around in the wild-card race. Rex Ryan and his staff have done a nice job of coaching around the obvious deficiencies and a rookie quarterback. Sure, they've benefited from a couple of huge breaks (the Lavonte David late hit and the Chris Jones push), but at least they were good enough to capitalize on them.

Without further delay, our midseason awards:

Offensive MVP: QB Geno Smith. Not much competition here. Yeah, I know, he cost them a couple of games with turnovers, but he also won games with his deep-throwing ability (Buffalo Bills), poise in the clutch (Atlanta Falcons) and mobility (New England Patriots).

Defensive MVP: DE Muhammad Wilkerson. A no-brainer. He already has a career-high seven sacks, along with one interception and one forced fumble. He's a lock for his first Pro Bowl. If he keeps it up, he could get some votes for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Special-teams MVP: PK Nick Folk. You can't quibble with perfection. The man is 19-for-19 on field goals, including three game winners. Next to Wilkerson, he's the team MVP.

Most Improved: RB Bilal Powell. He began training camp as an afterthought, but he worked his way up to the starting job. He has become a more elusive runner than in past years.

Least Improved: NT Kenrick Ellis. He was expected to make a big jump in Year 3, but he was slowed by a preseason back injury and hasn't come close to being a dominant run stuffer.

Biggest Surprise: NT Damon Harrison. "Big Snacks" came out of nowhere last year and Wally-Pipped Ellis in the preseason. Harrison is one of the reasons why the Jets are No. 1 against the run.

Biggest Disappointment: CB Antonio Cromartie. Coming off a Pro Bowl season, Cromartie already has allowed five completions of at least 46 yards. His uneven play has made it harder for the defense to deal with the Darrelle Revis void.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Cromartie
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIn 2013, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie hasn't quite lived up to his Pro Bowl season of last year.
Best Rookie: DT Sheldon Richardson. If it weren't for him, GM John Idzik would be taking major heat for the Revis trade. Richardson, acquired with the Revis pick (No. 13 overall), is a future star.

Best Offseason Acquisition: RG Willie Colon. Plagued by injuries in recent years, Colon hasn't missed a play and has added an element of toughness to the offensive line.

Worst Offseason Acquisition: RB Mike Goodson. Because of his embarrassing arrest and the subsequent suspension, he was a disaster before he stepped foot on the field. Maybe next time the front office will put more stock in its background checks.

Best-kept Secret: CB Ellis Lankster. He's not the leading tackler on special teams (he's second, behind Nick Bellore), but Lankster is the most dynamic player on the coverage units.

Best Coaching Move: Ryan decided before the season to take control of the defense, running it on a day-to-day basis. Ryan is at his best -- ditto, the defense -- when he's in charge.

Worst Coaching Move: The decision to insert Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, behind a backup offensive line, was a brainlock for the ages.

Biggest Concern: There's not enough offense. In their four losses, the Jets have managed only two touchdowns. They have to face four top-12 defenses in the second half. Uh oh.

Key to the Second Half: Continued improvement from Smith. His passer rating in Games 5-8 (75.2) was better than Games 1-4 (68.6), meaning he's moving in the right direction, albeit with baby steps. The struggling pass defense is another key, but luckily for the Jets, they face only one top-10 passing offense -- Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

The Jets will make the playoffs if: They win at least five of their remaining eight. Take a look at the AFC standings; a 9-7 record could be good enough for the second wild-card spot.

Player Ready to Emerge: RB Chris Ivory. He showed flashes against the Patriots. With the weather beginning to turn, Ivory's power-running style will be critical down the stretch.

Midseason Report: Texans

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:46
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Running back Steve Slaton's sophomore season has not fulfilled the promise shown in his rookie year.
Power Rankings: Preseason: 19. This week: 13.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: The Texas, at 5-3, were two games over .500 at the midpoint of the season for the first time in their history. But Sunday’s penalty-riddled loss at Indianapolis knocked them back a bit. Still, they are in position to post a mark better than 8-8 for the first time and could earn a spot in the AFC’s playoff field.

While they need better offensive balance, Matt Schaub’s been outstanding leading the NFL’s third-ranked passing offense. And after a shaky start, the defense has improved. Narrow losses to division foes Jacksonville and Indianapolis could be ones the Texans are left to regret the most.

Disappointments: Running back Steve Slaton was electric as a rookie and seemed to be a solution to run-game woes. But he’s regressed with a rushing average of 3.1 yards a carry and major fumbles that got him benched early in a game in Buffalo and still have him playing a reduced role.

Chris Brown, who was supposed to fill the role of the big complementary running back, proved he’s not the right man to get the ball when the team needs a tough yard. That wasn’t his strength when he was with the Titans, either.

Surprises: Since Gary Kubiak became coach in 2006, the Texans have rolled through starting strong safeties and always seemed unsettled at the spot with unreliable positioning and unsure tackling. But Kansas City castaway Bernard Pollard, with an endorsement from Houston’s new defensive back coach David Gibbs, was signed. His insertion into the lineup has coincided with a real defensive renaissance.

Rookie strongside linebacker Brian Cushing has been a solid player from the start, helping upgrade the front and combining with DeMeco Ryans to be a formidable linebacking duo.

Outlook: Injuries have hurt, with starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel and standout tight end Owen Daniels all lost for the season. Even without them, the Texans have enough firepower to be a factor in the AFC wild card race. But after the sloppy showing in Indianapolis, where the Texans still could have forced overtime but for a missed 42-yard field goal by Kris Brown at the end, there is still a sense from the outside that there is something missing.

If they can figure out what it is and add it, the Texans finally might fulfill their expectations.

Midseason Report: Titans

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:45
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE
Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher stayed with Kerry Collins at quarterback until owner Bud Adams put in a call to switch to Vince Young.
Power Rankings: Preseason: 7. This week: 23.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: They’ve been as surprising as any team in the league, and not in a good way. Before these Titans, no team in history had ever followed up a season where it started 10-0 with an 0-6 start in the next one. Things have gotten better in the last two weeks. Even if the turnaround continues, it’s going to wind up being too little too late for a team that came into the season with what seemed like reasonable Super Bowl expectations.

A 59-0 loss at New England qualifies as rock bottom and prompted owner Bud Adams to call for, and get, a change at quarterback from Kerry Collins to Vince Young.

Disappointments: The Titans and Jeff Fisher completely overestimated what they had at the season’s start in terms of the return game and in depth at cornerback. Ryan Mouton’s trouble fielding punts killed them. When a struggling veteran secondary was hit by injuries, rookies Jason McCourty and Mouton were not close to ready to substitute.

A receiving corps including Justin Gage and upgraded with a free agent (Nate Washington) and a first-rounder (Kenny Britt) dropped way too many passes. A Pro Bowl selection in 2008, safety Michael Griffin’s play dropped off substantially.

Surprises: Young had lost the faith of the coaching staff and Fisher fought to keep Collins in the lineup. Still, Young’s been efficient and effective in two games as the starter.

Young’s work, and everybody’s, has been made easier by Chris Johnson. The second-year running back’s been remarkable. Through eight games he is the NFL’s leading rusher, on pace for a 2,000-yard season. And if he maintains it, his 6.7 yards per carry would be the highest by the league’s rushing leader since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Outlook: A 6-10 record now seems possible, and that would be more than enough to ensure Fisher’s job safety as well as a high draft pick. The remainder of the season amounts to an audition for Young, who’s got a $4.25 million roster bonus and a 2010 cap number of more than $14 million pending. They need to decide where they are heading at quarterback.

The team is loaded with free agents to-be like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Nick Harper and Kevin Mawae. Odds are major roster turnover and a big youth movement are on the horizon.

Midseason Report: Jaguars

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:43
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Power Rankings: Preseason: 25. This week: 22.

2009 Schedule/Results

AP Photo/Stephen Morton
Jacksonville cornerback Derek Cox leads the team in interceptions.
Where they stand: At 4-4 the Jaguars are still in the AFC playoff picture despite frustrating inconsistency. Things have been difficult for the most part, but that’s to be expected for a team that purged the roster of bad seeds and bad contracts, didn’t spend big dollars to bring in any help and has looked to four rookies as starters.

They work hard, have stayed true to their coaches' messages. They have not gotten too frustrated by the lack of fan support. The Jaguars haven’t played in front of a home sellout or had a home game on TV in their market.

Disappointments: Last year’s top two picks needed to blossom this season to give the defensive front a boost. It hasn’t happened. While Derrick Harvey has improved, the team’s downplayed expectations for him to be a big-time sack guy, which is the natural expectation for a defensive end when a team traded into the No. 8 slot to draft him. Fellow defensive end Quentin Groves found his way back into the starting lineup last week, but has ranked as low as third-stringer and special teamer.

If the two were more productive, pass rushing wouldn’t be such a struggle and a lot of things might be easier.

Surprises: Defensive rookies out of non-football powerhouses have been impact guys. Third-round defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, from Temple, has been productive and steady whether he’s been part of a three-man or a four-man defensive line. And third-rounder Derek Cox, from William & Mary, has been mature beyond his years as a starting cornerback, playing with poise and confidence while pulling in as many interceptions as Rashean Mathis (two).

In a broader sense, the success in three games against division rivals in the first four weeks of the season rated as a shock. After a two-point opening day loss at Indianapolis, they won at Houston and knocked off Tennessee.

Outlook: If the Jaguars can get on any sort of roll, they can stay in the playoff picture. They’ve won two in a row only once so far. The next three weeks don’t stack up as especially difficult with games at the Jets, against Buffalo and at San Francisco. But there is no telling what the Jaguars will bring from week to week. One reason for optimism is the team’s switch back to the 4-3, which seems a much more natural scheme for many of the players on defense.

Things have been pretty good offensively with Maurice Jones-Drew's NFL leading 11 touchdowns and Mike Sims-Walker's emergence as a No. 1 receiver. It’s the defense that needs to make a leap for things to go well.

Midseason Report: Cardinals

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:39
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 17. This week: 10.

2009 Schedule/Results

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner is an MVP candidate.
Where they stand: The Cardinals are 5-3 and leading the NFC West by two games. The are still striving for consistency on offense, but a 41-21 victory over the Bears in Week 9 suggests they could be on the right track. Kurt Warner looks like an MVP candidate when he has time to throw and his receivers get open. That hasn't happened consistently enough to this point, but the Cardinals are in good position to defend their division title and make another playoff run.

Disappointments: The team is 1-3 at home and inconsistent from week to week. Also, the first two players Arizona drafted this year have contributed less than anticipated. First-round choice Beanie Wells is starting to get more chances, with positive results. But an ankle injury sidelined him during camp and forced him to play catchup through the first half of the season. Second-round choice Cody Brown, drafted to help the pass rush, landed on injured reserve before the season. Larry Fitzgerald did not immediately build upon his record-setting postseason. His per-catch average remains down sharply from last season. Anquan Boldin's recent antics were another disappointment. At tight end, Ben Patrick had to serve a four-game suspension. On the offensive line, tackle Levi Brown has continued to struggle with penalties and in pass protection. On defense, second-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been inconsistent. He has the talent to be a Pro Bowl player.

Surprises: The Cardinals are 5-3 overall and 4-0 on the road despite the long list of disappointments outlined above. They have won on both coasts and in between. Previously untested Calais Campbell has proved to be a worthy replacement for defensive end Antonio Smith, who left in free agency. Alan Branch, who would have belonged in the paragraph about disappointments in past seasons, has turned into a valued contributor on the defensive line. Branch and Campbell are among the reasons Arizona has ranked among the NFL leaders in run defense this season. Free safety Antrel Rolle, long a threat to make the big play, has developed into a more consistent player.

Outlook: The NFC West title is the Cardinals' to lose. Arizona's closing schedule is much easier this season than it was when the Cardinals stumbled through December in 2008. I have a hard time believing the Cardinals will continue losing games at home. They will probably win at least five or six on the road. Evening up that home record at 4-4 seems reasonable. In that case, the Cardinals would finish 9-7 or 10-6. Either record should be good enough for Arizona to emerge with a second consecutive division crown.

Midseason Report: 49ers

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:38
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 18. This week: 20.

2009 Schedule/Results

Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree's absence earlier in the season hurt the 49ers.
Where they stand: The 49ers are 3-5 and second in the NFC West after four consecutive defeats. Their inability to hold second-half road leads against the Vikings and Colts has proved costly. Winning those games might have given the 49ers the momentum needed to push for a division title. Instead, the 49ers have changed quarterbacks, something they seem to do most seasons, and they are still carving out an identity on offense.

Disappointments: First-round draft choice Michael Crabtree missed the start of the season during a contract dispute. More significantly, the offensive line hasn't developed as expected, particularly at guard and right tackle. Right guard Chilo Rachal, a promising young prospect, has clearly regressed. While tight end Vernon Davis and others have responded favorably to coach Mike Singletary's direct challenges, Rachal looks like he could use a confidence boost. Poor play at guard and right tackle have stood out as the No. 1 limiting factors for Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, Crabtree, coordinator Jimmy Raye and the offense in general. The 49ers are good enough on defense. Their special teams can be a strength. Fixing the offensive line has to be the top priority in the second half of the season and beyond. Losing left tackle Joe Staley to a sprained knee hurt.

Surprises: Davis has finally seen the light -- and frequently the end zone -- in his fourth NFL season. He has gone from symbolizing wasted potential to demonstrating the effect Singletary can have in challenging players to reach their potential. Davis ranks tied for the NFL lead in touchdown receptions. He is on pace for 84 receptions and 14 touchdowns. On defense, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has turned into a strong player against run and pass, giving the 49ers a tough defensive front. The secondary has outperformed most expectations after losing veteran cornerback Walt Harris to a season-ending injury. In retrospect, Shawntae Spencer would have beaten out Harris easily. Spencer has returned from reconstructive knee surgery to play at a high level. He was the best cornerback on the team this season, even when Nate Clements was healthy.

Outlook: The 49ers are approaching must-win territory against the Bears on Thursday night. The 49ers lack the offensive line and possibly the quarterback to become a serious playoff threat this season, in my view. The next eight games give them what might be one final chance to find out whether Smith can become their long-term quarterback. Davis and Crabtree provide ample young weapons. Gore will continue to pick up yards even though the blocking figures to remain a problem at times.

Midseason Report: Seahawks

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:37
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 14. This week: 25.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: The Seahawks are 3-5 and third in the NFC West after beating the Rams, Jaguars and Lions (the 49ers are also 3-5, but they hold the tiebreaker based on head-to-head results). Seattle probably needs to beat the Cardinals in Week 10 to consider itself part of the division race. The 49ers and Cardinals have already beaten Seattle. The Seahawks have already lost twice at home. This team is running out of second chances. Losing a tough game at home to the Bears in Week 3 proved costly.

Steve Dykes/US Presswire
Linebacker David Hawthorne has proven to be an upgrade for the Seahawks.
Disappointments: The team's inability to shake its recent injury problems devastated Seattle early in the season. The bigger disappointment for the Seahawks might come in the realization that getting key players healthy isn't necessarily going to make a big difference. Some of the problems on offense are easily explained by constant injury-related shuffling on the line, highlighted by Walter Jones' inability to return from knee surgery. That has contributed to underwhelming production in the running game after Seattle adopted more zone-blocking concepts. On defense, the Seahawks were supposed to be better. Linemen Brandon Mebane and Cory Redding enjoyed strong training camps. Neither has stood out much to this point. Defensive end Darryl Tapp has faded some after initially transferring a strong camp into a good start to the season.

Surprises: Linebacker David Hawthorne qualifies as the biggest surprise for Seattle -- by a wide margin. Losing veteran middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu to a season-ending injury would have seemed catastrophic a couple years ago. Hawthorne has arguably provided an upgrade. He has two sacks and two interceptions in his past two games. The energy and intensity he brings stand out. Receiver Nate Burleson has bounced back strong from knee surgery, developing into the Seahawks' most productive receiver. He is the only wide receiver on the team with a reception of 35 yards or longer. To have Burleson leading the team in receptions and receiving yards is somewhat surprising after the team signed T.J. Houshmandzadeh in free agency.

Outlook: This was supposed to be the point in the season when the Seahawks started to get healthy and hit stride. It could happen. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gives the Seahawks a chance to compete and win games against quite a few teams. The overall offensive consistency has not been there, however. Sometimes the Seahawks almost appear resigned to their fate, as if beaten down by all the injuries and defeats dating to last season. I haven't sensed an edge to this team. Confidence appears shaky. And with upcoming road games against Arizona and Minnesota, it's likely the Seahawks will fall further from contention.

Midseason Report: Rams

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:36
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Power Rankings: Preseason: 32. This week: 30.

2009 Schedule/Results

Fernando Medina/US Presswire
Steven Jackson has emerged as a leader under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Where they stand: The Rams are fourth in the NFC West with a 1-7 record. Expectations were low because the Rams parted with so many established players as part of a massive rebuilding project. The Rams are showing signs of improvement, particularly on offense, and they have continued to battle admirably despite glaring deficiencies at some positions, notably receiver. Beating the Lions before the bye week might have been critical for the Rams' psyche. They have bought into rookie coach Steve Spagnuolo, but believing would have been tougher if the Rams had taken an 0-8 record into their bye week.

Disappointments: The Rams knew they would struggle some as a young team finding its way amid significant scheme changes. To be competitive and win a few games to this point, they needed more from safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, cornerback Ron Bartell, defensive end Chris Long, receiver Donnie Avery, tight end Randy McMichael, quarterback Marc Bulger, tackle Alex Barron and defensive tackle Adam Carriker (placed on injured reserve). The team has invested considerable resources in each of those players. None is enjoying a particularly strong season. Veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon was another player expected to contribute. The Rams waited for him to emerge before trading him to the Eagles. Losing receiver Laurent Robinson to a season-ending injury was crushing. He had emerged as the Rams' best option.

Surprises: Defensive-minded coaches can sometimes be combustible, as Mike Singletary and Jim Mora have shown within the division. Spagnuolo has shown unwavering poise despite the Rams' struggles. He has been consistent with his message and unflappable. The team's veteran players have bought into Spagnuolo to a degree the Rams could not have anticipated. Having the previously volatile Steven Jackson onboard with the program was critical for Spagnuolo. Jackson has become a leader and a leading Spagnuolo proponent. His growth and maturity has helped the Rams stick together through brutally tough defeats, notably the overtime loss at Jacksonville after defensive end Leonard Little scored to put the Rams ahead in the final minutes of regulation.

Outlook: Jackson gives the Rams their best chance at being competitive. He has four 100-yard rushing games and a 4.8-yard average per carry even though defenses have little else to fear from the Rams' offense. The Rams play a relatively tough schedule over the second half of the season, starting with a home game against the undefeated Saints in Week 10. They have a chance to win a couple more games, but the rough schedule and the Rams' limitations make any final record projection better than 3-13 seem optimistic. The final eight games will stand as a success if the Rams win a couple of them while watching some of their core players develop. Even then, the Rams could very well need to consider drafting a franchise quarterback. The team also needs better young talent on its defensive line. Little and fellow veteran James Hall are the best pass-rushers on the team. That is not a good sign for a team that has recently used high first-round choices for defensive linemen.

Midseason Report: Panthers

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:34
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Power Rankings: Preseason: 14. This week: 21.

2009 Schedule/Results

AP Photo/Donna McWilliam
Losing linebacker Thomas Davis was a huge blow to the Carolina defense.
Where they stand: You’d have a tough time finding a more disappointing team than the Panthers. There was preseason talk about a Super Bowl run and bragging about the fact they were returning 21 of 22 starters. Problem is they didn’t do anything to get better (like maybe adding depth?) after a 12-4 season. It’s pretty amazing that an injury to a very average player like defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu could take such a toll on this defense, but that’s what happens when you tie up all of your cap room by giving Jordan Gross a massive contract, giving Julius Peppers an $18 million franchise tag and signing quarterback Jake Delhomme to a contract extension. Yes, the Panthers still aren’t out of the playoff race -- yet. But the picture isn’t very pretty, especially now that linebacker Thomas Davis, who had been the team’s best player for the first half of the season, is done because of a knee injury.

Disappointments: You have to start with Delhomme, but don’t put the blame entirely on him. He gave off warning signs late last season and in a disastrous playoff loss to Arizona. Carolina fans saw there was a need to do something at quarterback. But the coaching staff and the front office didn’t and they’re paying for it now. Delhomme’s been a turnover machine, but some of the blame should go to the coaching staff for asking him to go out and win games on his own after he’s been nothing more than a game-manager his entire career. Delhomme’s struggles have taken a massive toll on wide receiver Steve Smith. I still say Smith is more talented than any receiver in the NFC South, but his numbers don’t show it because the Panthers haven’t been able to get him the ball consistently. Then there’s fellow receiver Dwayne Jarrett. This was supposed to be the year he finally emerged as the second coming of Muhsin Muhammad. Instead, he’s proved he’s the second coming of Keary Colbert. Oh, and that offensive line, which was supposed to be a strong point, hasn’t been.

Surprises: Safety/return man Captain Munnerlyn has shown much more than a seventh-round draft pick should. After going through about 35 defensive tackles after Kemoeatu’s injury, the Panthers finally found a suitable replacement when they picked up veteran Hollis Thomas a few weeks back. Carolina’s pass defense has carried a top-10 ranking all season. That’s great. But I can’t help but wonder if that has more to do with other teams getting ahead and running on them than it does with anything the secondary has done.

Outlook: There’s still time to climb back into this race, and the Panthers have a lot of individual talent. Also, you should never count out a team coached by John Fox. But an improvement is unlikely if there aren’t some dramatic changes in the second half. They haven’t shown many signs they’re improving and the schedule isn’t easy. Unless the running game can get back to being dominant, Delhomme can get back to being competent, Smith can get back to being one of the league’s most explosive players and the defense gets back to looking like a Fox-coached defense, this team might not be coached by Fox anymore. This season began with playoff expectations. Anything less probably won’t be good enough.

Midseason Report: Falcons

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:33
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Power Rankings: Preseason: 8. This week: 9.

2009 Schedule/Results

Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI
Michael Turner has started to get on track the past two games.
Where they stand: The Falcons are 5-3, but we’re still trying to figure out who they really are. So are they. The charmed life of last season is a thing of the past with the Falcons having to deal with a brutal schedule and some adversity. They’ve looked great at times, like when they went out to San Francisco. But losses at New Orleans and New England have showed they’re not quite an elite team. The potential for that is there, but lots of things have to be worked out. Michael Turner and the running game have been at their best the last couple of weeks and that’s a big stride if the Falcons can continue on that path. Quarterback Matt Ryan has had a tough time when the running game hasn’t been there, and the defense remains very much a work in progress.

Disappointments: After hitting a grand slam with his first draft class, general manager Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t looked as brilliant with his second. Top two picks, Peria Jerry and William Moore, are out for the year with injuries and that’s part of the reason the defense hasn’t shown the improvement the Falcons were hoping for. The secondary’s been a big problem spot, particularly at cornerback. With veteran Brian Williams out for the season with an injury, the Falcons have turned to Chevis Jackson, Brent Grimes and Tye Hill to go with Chris Houston. No one in that trio has really stepped forward.

Surprises: The Falcons have made the most out of what was a bad situation by sliding former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson from defensive end to defensive tackle. Anderson’s at least competent in that role and playing Kroy Biermann in Anderson’s old spot at least gives the Falcons the threat of a pass rush. With Moore’s injury, second-year pro Thomas DeCoud won a starting safety job and he isn’t likely to lose it any time soon. DeCoud has been perhaps the only bright spot in the secondary.

Outlook: We’re going to find out a lot about the Falcons in the second half of the season. The schedule doesn’t get any easier and they probably have no chance of catching the Saints in the NFC South race. But the Falcons are very much in the playoff hunt. Can they stay in it? Well, much will depend on Turner. If he can run like he’s run the past two weeks -- and like he did last season -- that’s going to solve a lot of problems. There’s no doubt Ryan has to be more consistent, but that will happen if Turner can take pressure of him. The biggest question is the defense. It’s not like this unit is loaded with talent, so Mike Smith and Brian VanGorder will have to do some strong coaching.

Midseason Report: Buccaneers

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:31
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Power Rankings: Preseason: 26. This week: 31.

2009 Schedule/Results

Fernando Medina/US Presswire
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman gives the Bucs hope for the future.
Where they stand: In the offseason, the Bucs (1-7) began a major rebuilding process that many of their fans couldn’t grasp. That’s understandable because there have been plenty of moves that have caused head-scratching. But the bottom line is the organization didn’t have high expectations for this year. The Bucs got rid of coach Jon Gruden because they were tired of patchwork and mediocrity every year. They wanted a plan for the long term and that came with the departures of veterans like Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway and Warrick Dunn. The Bucs fully realized they had to take two steps back to move forward with new coach Raheem Morris. The problem is it’s looked like the Bucs have taken about 50 steps back without really showing any hope for the future. But that might be changing now that rookie quarterback Josh Freeman is playing.

Disappointments: I’m supposed to limit this to 100 words, which won’t be easy. Start with the team releasing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski right before the start of the season. Imagine where the Bucs would be right now if Jagodzinski had stayed and his playbook was as bad as the Bucs described it. Byron Leftwich was supposed to be a bridge to Freeman. He turned out to be a statue. Defensive backs Tanard Jackson and Aqib Talib let the team down with off-field actions. Defensive end Gaines Adams wasn’t having anything close to the breakout year the Bucs wanted and that got him traded to Chicago. Receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton simply haven’t produced. Running back Derrick Ward has been a complete bust and the kicking situation has been an utter mess. I could go on and on, but I’ve hit my word count.

Surprises: You have to look long and hard to find any positives for the Bucs. But wide receiver Sammie Stroughter has been one. He was a seventh-round draft pick, but he’s probably been the most productive rookie in the NFC South to the midway point. Defensive tackle Roy Miller also has shown some promise. Other than that …well, let’s just move to the next category.

Outlook: If you’re a Tampa Bay fan, do yourself a favor and just erase your memory of the first seven games. That actually makes sense because Freeman started the eighth game and that started a whole new era for the Bucs. Don’t get carried away with Freeman’s 1-0 record because there are likely to be a lot of rookie mistakes. But Freeman also has the physical talent to make some highlight plays. The rest of the season isn’t about climbing back into the playoff picture because that’s impossible. The rest of the season is about next season. It’s about seeing steady improvement from Freeman and finding some guys worthy of staying on this roster.

Midseason Report: Saints

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:31
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Power Rankings: Preseason: 18. This week: 1.

2009 Schedule/Results

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has a lot of weapons on offense.
Where they stand: Pretty much perfect. They’re undefeated and the rest of the schedule isn’t that difficult. As expected, the Saints are very good on offense. Quarterback Drew Brees is even better now that he has Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey healthy. It also doesn’t hurt that the Saints have suddenly developed a running game, highlighted by Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell. But the real reason the Saints are so different than last year is their defense. They’ve gone from being very bad to being very good. Give credit to new coordinator Gregg Williams for changing the scheme and the attitude. But also give credit to newcomers like safety Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer for making things happen on the field.

Disappointments: You have to look pretty hard to find any disappointments here. Just about everything that can go right has gone right. If you want to count the injury to left tackle Jammal Brown as a disappointment, go ahead. But the Saints have done a pretty nice job of moving on with Jermon Bushrod in that role. If you want to jump on everybody’s favorite target, you can point at Reggie Bush. This was supposed to be the year he proved he could run between the tackles. Instead, he’s shown he’s a role player as Bell and Thomas have been doing most of the running.

Surprises: Take your pick of about a dozen. Let’s start with Sharper. He’s 33 and there were some people who thought he was washed up when the Saints signed him. Instead, Sharper is playing like a potential defensive player of the year. Greer also has turned out to be an excellent free-agent signing. Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who’ve been called underachievers in the past, are suddenly achieving. Defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, who was out of the league for two years, has earned a starting role and been better than anyone could have imagined. Oh, you want one more surprise: How about Shockey? Ever since that little offseason incident in Las Vegas, he’s been on his best behavior, playing and acting like a true team player. That's a very nice surprise.

Outlook: How can you not like the Saints’ chances? Officially, they’re 8-0, but they’ve got St. Louis and Tampa Bay in their next two games, so let’s go ahead and put them down for double-digit wins. The only games left on the schedule that even look challenging are Dallas, Atlanta and New England. Fans already are talking about the possibility of an undefeated regular season. That’s great and it’s possible, but let’s focus on more important things -- like getting to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. To do that, the Saints have to hit their stride in January. They have to stay healthy and there are plenty of little things they can improve on in the second half of the season.

Midseason Report: Ravens

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:29
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Power Rankings: Preseason: 10. This week: 14.

2009 Schedule/Results

James Lang/US Presswire
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has improved in his second season.
Where they stand: The Ravens (4-4) started fast but have fallen behind in the race of playoff contenders by losing four of their last five games. It’s not totally impossible for Baltimore sneak into a wild-card spot, but time is quickly running out. The Ravens have the talent to compete with anyone, but their inability to finish games in the first half of the season has put them in a very tight spot. The AFC is deep as usual this year and it will probably take a minimum of 10 wins to get into the postseason. That would leave the Ravens will very little margin for error as they would have to win at least six of their final eight games.

Disappointments: Baltimore’s pass defense has been consistently poor all season. It’s the only problem the coaching staff has been unable to figure out. Their major free-agent signing, cornerback Domonique Foxworth, has been a disappointment. Fellow cornerback Fabian Washington and backups Chris Carr and Frank Walker also have played inconsistently. On top of that, the Ravens have been unable to generate a consistent pass rush. The front seven isn’t winning as many one-on-one matchups as it did last year, which isn’t helping. If the Ravens' struggles in those areas continue, it’s going to be a long second half.

Surprises: Ray Rice showed flashes as a rookie. But this year he took a major step forward to developing into the full-time feature back. The Ravens saw this early in the offseason as Rice put on some extra muscle to help him run between the tackles. As a result, the team has gone away from their three-headed monster approach to get the ball in Rice’s hands as much as possible. He is the most dynamic weapon the Ravens have on offense and will increasingly become a headache for opposing defensive coordinators for years to come.

Outlook: Right now things are not looking good for the Ravens, but I wouldn’t rule them out. This team can get hot at any moment, and if Baltimore ever figures out how to defend the pass better it will become a very dangerous team down the stretch. The Ravens are a team built to thrive in November and December. So don’t be surprised if they get hot in the second half. But with a .500 record, the pressure is on to win now or stay home for the postseason.

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