Every team has their must-start players. But then there are two or three decisions to be made every week on the second tier of your roster. And those decisions often come down to opposing defense. Here's a look at what projects to be some of this year's juiciest matchups for your running backs, QBs, and receivers.
You don't need to be a modern-day Knute Rockne to figure out this one. Raiders opponents have the choice of throwing at one of the NFL's strongest corner tandems (yes, Nnamdi Asomugha is as underrated as new addition DeAngelo Hall is overrated). Or, they can run it at the gut of a defense that allowed a league-high 4.8 yards per carry last season. The one positive is that Oakland has the offense to control the clock with Darren McFadden and Co. running behind one of the NFL's most underappreciated lines. But the only real changes on the defensive front seven will be Tommy Kelly returning from a torn ACL (we'll see if he can go 100 percent), chronically-underachieving William Joseph stepping into the rotation, and washed up Warren Sapp stepping away from the game. Sounds like a lateral move. And when you consider that most teams will likely be leading when they play Oakland and their reconstructed passing game (both because of JaMarcus Russell's project status and Javon Walker's knees), it makes the play-calling easy. Teams will run against the Raiders early and often. And they'll most likely be successful doing it.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners are primed to give up chunks of yardage on the ground. But Patrick Willis and a decent young defense aren't at fault (San Fran was one of 12 teams to allow fewer than four yards per carry last season). A big reason teams give up rushing yards is because they trail a lot, and their defense is on the field a lot. And the Niners fit the bill on both counts. Mike Martz or not, their offense is likely to stink because they don't have a passer to fit Martz's system. A year ago, the Niners finished last in the league in time of possession. Mostly because of Martz's air it out offense, Detroit was second to last. Now, with Mad Martz airing it out 40 times every Sunday at Candlestick (or whatever it's called these days), the Niners figure to sink further behind the league in ToP per game. Maybe they'll only give up four yards per rush. But opponents are going to be rushing a lot while protecting leads.
The list of running backs who had big days against Denver last season doesn't exactly inspire visions of Canton: LaMont Jordan (25 carries, 159 yards), Michael Turner (10-for-147 and a TD off the bench), Justin Fargas (33-146-1), Chester Taylor (10-83), Kenton (Freaking) Keith (10-80), Ron Dayne (11-67-1), T.J. Duckett (5-48-1), Austrian-born inventor, engineer, and scientist Nikola Tesla (12-83-2). Only one of those performances didn't actually happen (though they all seem equally implausible). And that is how the Broncos ended up with the third-worse run defense in the NFL. Especially disturbing was that this came under respected (and consistently successful) defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Part of the problem was that Bates' scheme requires tackles effectively stuffing the run, which didn't happen with their lack of talent at DT. Underachieving ex-Jet Dewayne Robertson could help since he's a significantly better fit in a 4-3 scheme. But teams aren't about to change course against the Broncos, especially when the alternative is throwing at Champ Bailey and Dre Bly.Cincinnati Bengals
It's nice when your quarterback or receivers are matched up against a team that not only can't stop them, but has an offense of their own that can bite back. Cincy is once again shaping up to be a great place to visit for opposing passing games. Second-year corner Leon Hall is growing into a solid corner, but fellow first-rounder Jonathan Joseph remains a big question mark heading into his third season, and free safety Madieu Williams got out while the getting was good. He'll be replaced by yet another youngster, Chinedum Ndukwe. And the pass rush isn't getting any better with Antwan Odom basically replacing departed Justin Smith. And with Carson Palmer and Co. always up for a shootout, expect more torchings for a secondary that allowed a 65.4 percent completion rate (third-highest in the NFL) and 29 TD passes (tied for third highest). New coordinator Mike Zimmer better have something up his sleeve (maybe sneak in a 12th player?) if this team's going to avoid another season near the bottom of the NFL against the pass.
Mario Williams can only do so much. Because until Dunta Robinson is back in the lineup and going at full capacity (may not happen in 2008), this Houston secondary is going to be dissected often. Houston's star power is in the front seven. Their patchwork secondary, sans Robinson, will feature returning starters Will Demps and C.C. Brown at safety, as well as FredBennett at one corner. The other corner is the wild card: free agent signee Jacques Reeves. Reeves was asked to play a lot of man-off coverage in Dallas, which was not really his thing. He should be comfortable playing the kind of press coverage Houston uses more frequently, allowing his physical gifts to take over. But the bottom line is this: Everyone picked on Reeves last season, and his Dallas career ended after Eli Manning locked in on him during a Sunday in January. The Giants gave Reeves everything short of an atomic wedgie that day. The Texans allowed the seventh-most gross passing yards in the NFL last season (and before you make "they played Indy twice!" defense, they also got two match-ups with Tennessee). Atlanta threw on them for 311 yards, the Jags went for 329, even Vince Young and the Titans went for 294 in Houston. And if the Reeves gamble doesn't work out for the Texans, they'll be a welcome site for quarterbacks again this year.
New Orleans Saints
It never fair to blame a team's woes on one player. But it's also not far off to say this is all Jason David's fault. Outside of the warming glow of Indy's Cover-2, David was exploited, further weakening an already subpar secondary. New Orleans have up 257.6 gross passing yards per game (third-most in the NFL) and 32 passing TDs (tied for first). The 7.87 yards per pass attempt they allowed was the highest YPA in the NFL over the past two seasons.
To fix the problem, the Saints are going with a strength in numbers approach across from Mike McKenzie, bringing in free agents Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn and drafting Tracy Porter. Though with their mediocre-at-best safety tandem of Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper, the Saints needed a lot more than that. New Orleans actually shored up an already decent run defense by bringing in Jonathan Vilma and drafting Sedrick Ellis, inviting even more pass attempts at their ravaged secondary. And with the pass-happy Saints throwing more passes than any other NFL team last season, New Orleans is inviting a lot of good, old-fashioned shootouts, adding up to plenty of passing yards and TDs for opposing teams.