NFL Nation: Pressure point

Pressure point: Titans

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Titans and why.

Running back Chris Johnson could get away with one off season. He was a tentative runner in 2011 no matter what he or the team says about it. He got sick of early contact. He gave up too often. He went down too easily.

The Titans have made some changes that should help.

Whether Eugene Amano remains at center or is replaced, the pivot man will be next to veteran guard Steve Hutchinson. The team expects him to have a big, positive influence on the guy next to him. Fullback Ahmard Hall won’t be re-signed, so the Titans will go with Quinn Johnson or undrafted rookie Collin Mooney as the lead blocker if the Titans stick with a fullback. First-round draft pick Kendall Wright bolsters the receiving corps and should be able to threaten deep, as will a healthy Kenny Britt. An increasingly threatening passing game should help the Titans back defenses off. Take a defender out of the box, and Johnson should be more effective.

He’s also spending extensive offseason time with the team for the first time, and coaches are convinced picking apart last season and making corrections together through the spring and summer will make a difference.

Another piece of Johnson’s contract becomes guaranteed after this season. If he comes up with another dud, the team will have cause to bail.

Pressure point: Jaguars

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Jaguars and why.

Blaine Gabbert can deliver some big-time passes.

In a rookie season when he was on the field sooner than the Jaguars initially intended, the offensive framework a young quarterback needed was not in place. Injuries on the offensive line meant less-than-stellar pass protection. The receivers were a motley crew. Mike Thomas’ play dropped off after he got a new contract. Tight end Marcedes Lewis' play dropped off after he got a fat new contract.

Gabbert played poorly, drawing criticism for being panicky and, worse, scared. It’s too early to brand him. But the Jaguars' efforts now center on maximizing his chances to succeed.

He needs to pull his game up to at least average to justify the faith of Jaguars management and coaches. The Jaguars added Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson to the receiving corps. They’ll get Eben Britton back on the offensive line. A healed-up defense will do a better job at getting Gabbert and the offense the ball back and in better field position.

Coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback coach Greg Olson are spending the offseason working with Gabbert. Come the season, they will craft game plans that give him the best chance at success.

The issues that contributed to holding him back have all been addressed. It’s time for us to see some of those big-time passes.

Pressure point: Buccaneers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Buccaneers and why.

Back in 2010, the Buccaneers decided to invest heavily in the middle of their defensive line. They used a first-round draft pick on Gerald McCoy and a second-round choice on Brian Price. The thinking was the duo would make Tampa Bay solid in the middle for years to come. But things haven’t worked out exactly as planned.

McCoy and Price each have shown a few flashes, but injuries have prevented them from being anything close to dominant. A new coaching staff is taking over and there still is hope that McCoy and Price can prosper. But this coaching staff isn’t as deeply wed to players it didn’t play a role in drafting. The pressure is especially on McCoy, who was drafted with the No. 3 overall choice and forever will be compared to Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, who was selected just before him. To date, McCoy has four career sacks and has missed 13 games with injuries.

The Bucs are hoping this is the year McCoy and Price finally stay healthy, but new coach Greg Schiano has brought in alternatives in case the injury problems continue. The Bucs have added free-agent defensive tackles Amobi Okoye, a former first-round pick by Houston, and Gary Gibson, who played for Schiano at Rutgers and has bounced around the league. McCoy and Price will get every benefit of the doubt, but they have to be able to stay on the field to make an impact.

Pressure point: Colts

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Colts and why.

The Colts are changing in a big way on defense -- they aim to be bigger, more physical and better against the run. Although they talk of being a hybrid, they want to be a base 3-4 front.

To me, the pressure point will be split between two guys: Coach Chuck Pagano, the architect of the scheme, and the guy who will have to answer for its progress. His coordinator, Greg Manusky, will help spread the message, install the system and draw up game plans. The coach and his coordinator share the pressure for a unit that is converting high-quality 4-3 ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis into outside linebackers.

The two are excellent rushers, and there is risk in asking them to stand up and change. But they’ll be charging quarterbacks from a variety of spots, and offenses probably prefer to know where exactly they’ll be lining up.

Pagano helped Indianapolis land three players he coached in Baltimore: nose tackle Brandon McKinney, end Cory Redding, and safety Tom Zbikowski. The draft added only fifth-round nose tackle Josh Chapman and and seventh-round end Tim Fugger.

How much of the personnel deficiencies, especially in the secondary, can Pagano and Manusky cover up with scheme?

Pressure point: Texans

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Texans and why.

Matt Schaub's been Houston’s starting quarterback for five seasons, and he’s played all 16 games only twice. You can’t blame him for a bad luck injury like last year’s right foot Lisfranc issue that required serious surgery. Still, to be a big-time quarterback, you need to be on the field.

Schaub has yet to play in a postseason game. Although the Texans weren’t able to hold everything together off their first playoff team, they still have a strong roster. This should be a playoff team that can challenge for the AFC South crown in 2012. But it won’t get to the postseason or do well in it if Schaub doesn’t have a solid, consistent and healthy season.

His contract situation complicates things. This is the final year of his deal, so he has a lot at stake. I think they’ll look to keep Schaub in place no matter what happens. If he’s banged up and the Texans don’t impress with a deep playoff run, Schaub will get less of a jackpot than he would if they ran away with the division and went to the Super Bowl.

Schaub can be excellent running coach Gary Kubiak’s offense, and the quarterback and coach are probably married for the long term. Kubiak was last year’s pressure point and he performed. This year it’s on Schaub.

Pressure point: Panthers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Panthers and why.

There probably isn’t a defensive coordinator in the league who has faced more criticism than Sean McDermott the past two seasons. He was fired by Philadelphia after the 2010 season, and his defense was dismal in his first season in Carolina.

McDermott got a bit of a pass because Carolina had a bunch of injuries on defense, it was the first year for a new coaching staff and rookie quarterback Cam Newton and a suddenly explosive offense gave fans a nice distraction. But, no matter how many points Newton and the offense scored, the Carolina defense had enormous trouble protecting leads in a 6-10 season. The excuses won’t fly this time around.

Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are returning from injuries and the Panthers added linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round of this year’s draft. McDermott has the personnel necessary to put together a respectable defense. The injured players and Kuechly join a nucleus that includes defensive end Charles Johnson and cornerback Chris Gamble, and the pressure is squarely on McDermott to put a good defense on the field.

If he can do that, Carolina could be a legitimate playoff contender. If not, McDermott could be on the hot seat.

Pressure point: Falcons

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
9:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Atlanta Falcons and why.

From ownership through the front office and coaching staff and into every corner of the locker room, the Falcons firmly believe Matt Ryan has everything it takes to be an elite quarterback. He’s a natural leader, works as hard as anyone and has won a lot of games during his first four seasons.

The problem is that every one of those wins has come in the regular season. The lack of a single postseason victory has a lot of people on the outside doubting whether Ryan really is the long-term answer for Atlanta. If Ryan goes a fifth season without a playoff victory, some of that doubt may creep into the Falcons' own building.

There have been excuses -- most of them valid -- for Ryan's inability to win in the postseason. But those excuses are disappearing. The Falcons brought in Julio Jones last year to be a deep threat, and they’re overhauling their offensive line to give Ryan more time to find receivers down the field. They also have brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who supposedly is installing a system that’s tailored to get the most out of Ryan’s ability.

The Falcons are going out of their way to give Ryan everything he needs to succeed. Now, with his current contract set to expire in 2013, it’s up to Ryan to take the next step. If he can win a playoff game, a contract extension is sure to follow and the doubts will disappear.

Pressure point: Cardinals

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Arizona Cardinals and why.

The 2012 season should be less challenging for Kevin Kolb than the one that came before it, but Kolb still qualifies for consideration on a varied list of NFC West players with tough roads ahead. Quarterback is a difficult enough position without the added burden of unrealistic expectations. The $12.4 million annual average Arizona paid to Kolb demanded immediate production, and at a high level. Kolb struggled, raising the stakes for 2012.

Kolb should benefit from the added preparation time this offseason affords players in general. Last year, Kolb remained property of the Philadelphia Eagles until late July. Rules prevented him from practicing with his new teammates until Aug. 4. This year, Kolb gets a full offseason to master the offense. The Cardinals also expect Kolb's fundamentals to improve now that the detail-oriented John McNulty has shifted over from receivers coach to handle quarterbacks.

Kolb faces at least three tough challenges.

First, he must hold off John Skelton for the starting job. Skelton faces no pressure as a 2010 fifth-round draft choice earning $490,000 in base salary. Skelton scored points with fans and the team for his role in a few fourth-quarter comeback victories last season. Skelton has also proved durable, which leads into the second challenge for Kolb: staying healthy. Concussions have knocked Kolb from the lineup in Philadelphia (2010) and Arizona (2011).

Finally, Kolb enters what is clearly a make-or-break year for him with no assurances that the Cardinals can protect him adequately. Arizona has questionable pass-protection credentials at both tackle spots. Kolb did not demonstrate much feel for the pocket last season. The Cardinals did add weaponry for Kolb by using a first-round pick for Michael Floyd. Floyd, unlike Kolb, will be given a couple of years to develop.

Pressure point: Broncos

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Broncos and why.

John Elway’s second tenure with the Denver Broncos has gone well so far.

The legendary Denver quarterback has earned rave reviews around the league for his work as Denver’s primary football decision-maker since he took over in January 2011. On the surface, things are looking good in Denver, and there really isn’t a lot of pressure on anyone as the Peyton Manning era begins.

However, if Manning doesn't bounce back from the neck injury that sidelined him for the 2011 season, the heat will be on Elway. By all indications, Manning, 36, should be fine and plenty of teams would have taken the same risk as Elway did.

But if the 2012 season somehow starts without Manning behind center in Denver, Elway is going to hear it from fans. He will be asked every day how he could trade away Tim Tebow and sign damaged goods like Manning.

It will not be a pretty scene if that happens. The odds are Manning will be fine, but Elway needs to hope the odds play out as expected because he is all-in with Manning.

Pressure point: Rams

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the St. Louis Rams and why.

Jason Smith should be hitting his prime years as an offensive tackle for the Rams. There's a chance that will be the case, unlikely as it seems after three underwhelming seasons marked by injuries. The Rams reworked Smith's contract and will find out whether new line coach Paul Boudreau can help Smith, still only 26, fulfill more of his potential. Smith, limited to six games last season after suffering a concussion during a freak collision, will need better luck with injuries for that to happen.

It's instructive to recall the Rams' thinking when they made Smith the second player chosen in the 2009 draft. The feeling then was that Smith remained in the early stages of a transition from tight end to tackle, and that Eugene Monroe, selected eighth overall that year by Jacksonville, was more polished coming out of college.

"The way we look at it, he has played at a high level with only three years at the position," Billy Devaney, then the Rams' general manager, said of Smith at the time. "So you try to project a year or two down the road with that kind of development that we see, he’ll be that much better. If you take Monroe, he comes in and lines up on Sunday, if we're playing, at left tackle and plays. He's been there longer. Jason has been a right tackle and that’s what gives us flexibility. ... His production is good now and his potential is outstanding."

The Rams are envisioning more of a run-oriented offense this year. That could help Smith, their projected starter at right tackle, find his bearings. The schedule presents challenges, however. Smith opens the season on the road against Detroit and the Lions' franchise player, Cliff Avril. The Washington Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan is on the schedule in Week 2, followed by matchups against rookie first-round picks Shea McClellin (Chicago) and Bruce Irvin (Seattle). Green Bay's Clay Matthews is also on the schedule in the first seven games.

Pressure point: Seahawks

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Seattle Seahawks and why.

Tarvaris Jackson earned the respect of his Seahawks teammates by playing through much of the 2011 with a torn pectoral muscle on his right side. Jackson never complained or made excuses. The injury made it tougher for Jackson to take hold of the starting job for the long term. The Seahawks' inability to make key plays in critical moments left them with a 7-9 record and kept them in the market for help at the position.

Jackson has gone from probable starter to potential roster casualty over the last two months. Seattle's signing of Matt Flynn from Green Bay in free agency made Jackson the presumed underdog in a two-man race for the starting job. The dynamic changed again when the Seahawks used a third-round choice for Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who subsequently impressed coaches during a recently completed rookie camp. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is now talking about a three-man race for the starting job.

The Seahawks acquired Jackson primarily for his knowledge of coordinator Darrell Bevell's offense during a lockout-shortened 2011 offseason. Sure, they hoped Jackson might turn into something more than a stopgap, but they entered into that relationship with the shorter term in mind. That is one reason Carroll broke from his competition mantra by installing Jackson as the starter heading into camp.

Circumstances are different now. The Seahawks targeted Flynn and Wilson as potential franchise quarterbacks, not as stopgap solutions. The team has a pretty good idea what Jackson offers. Expectations are higher for Flynn and Wilson. It's now an upset if Jackson wins the starting job. It's probably an upset if the Seahawks pay him $4 million in base salary, the figure spelled out for 2012 in the two-year deal Jackson signed in July 2011.

This is looking like a most challenging year for Jackson.

Pressure point: 49ers

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the San Francisco 49ers and why.

Frank Gore ranked sixth among NFL rushers with 1,211 yards last season, at one point rushing for at least 100 yards in five consecutive games. He earned Pro Bowl honors for his work in the regular season before adding 29 carries for 163 yards (5.6 per attempt) over two playoff games. Gore, with 7,625 yards for his career, passed Hall of Famer Joe Perry for the most in franchise history. He's been the 49ers' best and most consistent offensive player for years.

The challenge will be to remain productive and fend off challengers in an increasingly competitive backfield.

Gore's 29th birthday was Tuesday. Running backs generally slow considerably by that age. Injuries have slowed Gore at various points in recent seasons, including when he missed the final five games of the 2010 season. The good news for Gore is that his average for yards per attempt has remained strong, never dipping below 4.2 during any of his seven seasons. He's an exceedingly tough player. And although Gore is plenty physical, he runs low to the ground, making it tougher for opponents to deliver the most damaging blows.

It's possible Gore will defy the odds for older backs, putting together another robust season. He'll continue to benefit from playing within one of the NFL's best running schemes. The 49ers have bought insurance. They used a 2011 fourth-round pick for Kendall Hunter and a 2012 second-rounder for LaMichael James. They signed Brandon Jacobs in free agency. Gore remains the clear favorite to start and lead the team in rushing, but an already difficult job will become even more challenging at this stage of his career.

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