Los Angeles Rams face high expectations while Seattle Seahawks in transition in NFC West preview

Jay Asser 7/09/2018
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With the Los Angeles Rams primed to challenge for the Super Bowl, the rest of the NFC West seems to be playing for second.

The San Francisco 49ers will be intriguing in the second year of their head coach-quarterback pairing, while the Seattle Seahawks will feature an almost completely new and unrecognisable defence.

How the Arizona Cardinals fare is still anyone’s guess.

Learn more about the teams with our NFC West team guides.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Head coach: Steve Wilks

Star player: David Johnson

Last season: 8-8

Key ins: Sam Bradford (Minnesota), Tre Boston (LA Chargers), Andre Smith (Cincinnati), Justin Pugh (NY Giants), Josh Rosen (rookie), Christian Kirk (rookie), Mason Cole (rookie)

Key outs: Adrian Peterson (Washington), Tramon Williams (Green Bay), Justin Bethel (Atlanta), John Brown (Baltimore), Tyrann Mathieu (Houston), Jared Veldheer (Denver)

Strengths: Defence has multiple players with game-changing ability.

Weaknesses: Wide receiver is shallow after Larry Fitzgerald as they’re relying on young or unproven players.

Verdict: Rosen could be on the field sooner than they want and the result may be another .500 season.

DJ

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Head coach: Sean McVay

Star player: Aaron Donald

Last season: 11-5, lost in Wild Card round

Key ins: Brandin Cooks (New England), Marcus Peters (Kansas City), Aqib Talib (Denver), Ndamukong Suh (Miami), Sam Shields (Green Bay)

Key outs: Tavon Austin (Dallas), Connor Barwin (NY Giants), Trumaine Johnson (NY Jets), Alec Ogletree (NY Giants), Robert Quinn (Miami), Sammy Watkins (Kansas City), Kayvon Webster (Houston)

Strengths: Blue-chip talent is through the roof, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Weaknesses: Linebacking unit was torn down to spend money elsewhere.

Verdict: Facing massive expectations but built to win a title.

McVay

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Head coach: Kyle Shanahan

Star player: Richard Sherman

Last season: 6-10

Key ins: Richard Sherman (Seattle), Alfred Morris (Dallas), Mike McGlinchey (rookie), Date Pettis (rookie)

Key outs: Trent Brown (New England), Carlos Hyde (Cleveland), Eli Harold (Detroit), Brandon Fusco (Atlanta), Jerick McKinnon (injury), Elvis Dumervil (retired), Eric Reid (free agent)

Strengths: Offence is expected to take another step with Jimmy Garoppolo in his second year with Shanahan.

Weaknesses: Lack of pass rushing, which they didn’t really improve on, could hold them back.

Verdict: Have an exciting future, but clearly sit behind the conference’s elite sides.

Jimmy

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Head coach: Pete Carroll

Star player: Russell Wilson

Last season: 10-6

Key ins: Brandon Marshall (NY Giants), Erik Walden (Tennessee), D.J. Fluker (NY Giants), Rashaad Penny (rookie), Raheem Green (rookie), Shaquem Griffin (rookie)

Key outs: Michael Bennett (Philadelphia), Richard Sherman (San Francisco), Paul Richardson (Washington), Sheldon Richardson (Minnesota), Kam Chancellor (retired), Jimmy Graham (Green Bay), Cliff Avril (free agent)

Strengths: Have a quarterback who can lift up everyone around him.

Weaknesses: Defence has suffered massive turnover.

Verdict: They appear headed for a rebuilding year, but should fight until the end as usual.

Wilson

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Stars aligning for Los Angeles Chargers while Oakland Raiders a mystery under Jon Gruden in AFC West preview

Jay Asser 7/09/2018
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The AFC West may be the division that has experienced the most change in teams’ most important areas.

While the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos have new starting quarterbacks, a familiar face has returned to the Oakland Raiders to take the heading-coaching reins.

The Los Angeles Chargers were already the most talented roster in the field, but their continuity should give them another advantage in the battle for the division crown.

Learn more about the teams with our AFC West team guides.

DENVER BRONCOS

Head coach: Vance Joseph

Star player: Von Miller

Last season: 5-11

Key ins: Case Keenum (Minnesota), Marquette King (Oakland), Adam Jones (Cincinnati), Jared Veldheer (Arizona), Tramaine Brock (Minnesota), Clinton McDonald (Tampa Bay), Su’a Cravens (Washington), Bradley Chubb (rookie), Courtland Sutton (rookie), Royce Freeman (rookie)

Key outs: C.J. Anderson (Carolina), Aqib Talib (LA Rams), Allen Barbre (free agent)

Strengths: Edge rushing will be scary with Miller, Chubb, Shane Ray and others.

Weaknesses: Passing attack is improved but still has question marks.

Verdict: If their offence can get in the same ballpark as their defence, they may surprise.

Miller

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Head coach: Andy Reid

Star player: Eric Berry

Last season: 10-6, lost in Wild Card round

Key ins: Sammy Watkins (LA Rams), Kendall Fuller (Washington), Orlando Scandrick (Washington), Anthony Hitchens (Dallas), Breeland Speaks (rookie), Derrick Nnadi (rookie)

Key outs: Alex Smith (Washington), Tamba Hali (free agent), Bennie Logan (Tennessee), Albert Wilson (Miami), Marcus Peters (LA Rams), Derrick Johnson (Oakland), Zach Fulton (Houston)

Strengths: Have a high-powered offence with multiple weapons.

Weaknesses: Could struggle to defend against the pass, even with Berry’s playmaking.

Verdict: Should be involved in plenty of shootouts.

Mahomes

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Head coach: Anthony Lynn

Star player: Keenan Allen

Last season: 9-7

Key ins: Mike Pouncey (Miami), Virgil Green (Denver), Derwin James (rookie), Uchenna Nwosu (rookie), Justin Jones (rookie)

Key outs: Matt Slauson (Indianapolis), Jason Verrett (injury), Hunter Henry (injury), Tre Boston (Arizona)

Strengths: From top to bottom, have one of the most talented rosters in the league.

Weaknesses: Preseason injuries have already brought their depth into play and dampened their outlook.

Verdict: Everything is in place for them to be contenders, as long as they stay mostly healthy and Philip Rivers doesn’t completely fall off.

Allen (1)

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Head coach: Jon Gruden

Star player: Rodney Hudson

Last season: 6-10

Key ins: Jordy Nelson (Green Bay), Doug Martin (Tampa Bay), Rashaan Melvin (Indianapolis), A.J. McCarron (Buffalo), Derrick Johnson (Kansas City), Marcus Gilchrist (Houston), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NY Giants) Kolton Miller (rookie), P.J. Hall (rookie)

Key outs: Khalil Mack (Chicago), Michael Crabtree (Baltimore), Marquette King (Denver), Cordarrelle Patterson (New England), Sean Smith (free agent)

Strengths: Interior offensive line is as good as it gets.

Weaknesses: Tied for second-fewest takeaways last year (14).

Verdict: Gruden was gone for a long time and it could show.

Gruden

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How the Pittsburgh Steelers offence will manage life without Le'Veon Bell

Jay Asser 6/09/2018
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Le’Veon Bell’s continued absence from the Pittsburgh Steelers has his teammates upset and the organisation frustrated, but with Week 1 of the season already upon them, the team has no choice but to move on and figure out how to win without one of their top playmakers.

When Pittsburgh face AFC North foes the Cleveland Browns on Sunday to open their campaign, they’ll be without the ball-carrying and receiving skills of Bell.

In his place, James Conner is expected to start and get the majority of the workload in the backfield.

The second-year player saw little work last year after the Steelers drafted him in the third round, finishing with just 32 carries for 144 yards (4.5 average) and no receptions as Bell’s back-up.

This preseason though, Conner did a passable Bell impression by running for 100 yards on 19 carries, while adding 64 yards as a receiver.

“We did pretty good then, too,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “James is a year better than he was last year at this time. So I think we’re all excited for what he can bring to this offense and this team. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We’d like [Bell] out there, but we’ve got guys who can make plays for us.”

As important as Bell is to the offence – he’s averaged 128.9 yards per game in his first five years – Pittsburgh have managed to survive when he’s not been on the field during his career. The Steelers are 44-22 when he plays and 12-9 when he’s out, but their points per game are the same in both instances: 25.3.

In 2015 and 2016, when Bell totaled five games of suspension and missed another eight with a knee injury, Pittsburgh averaged 29.5 points with DeAngelo Williams as the workhorse back.

Williams racked up 1,105 rushing yards during that span, along with 53 receptions. For comparison, Williams averaged 23.1 catches in the seven seasons he played at least 13 games before joining the Steelers in 2015.

Conner can expect to see a similar type of workload as Pittsburgh have proven to be one of the few teams in the league that use their back-up running back in a similar vein as their star.

Bell, of course, is so valuable because he can do damage when lined up in other spots on the field, whether that’s out wide or in the slot. The Steelers may not deploy Conner like that, but the 23-year-old should be on the receiving end of plenty of dump-off passes and screens from Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh also have more than enough talent at wide receiver to help ease the burden. Antonio Brown will be the usual target monster he always is, but there should be more opportunity for wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington to contribute as possession receivers tasked with the responsibility of moving the chains, rather than just picking up large chunks.

Smith-Schuster especially could see his role increase, in a somewhat similar fashion to the two games the Steelers were without Brown at the end of last season.

In the final two weeks, Smith-Schuster had 15 receptions on 17 targets for 218 yards and two touchdowns. He still stretched the field vertically with grabs of at least 46 yards in both games, but his average yards per reception was 14.5, compared to 16.2 the rest of the season.

All in all, the Steelers attack should remain extremely potent and dangerous – something that will be taken to another level when Bell eventually shows up.

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