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.


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.



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.



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)


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.


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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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New Orleans Saints are the full package while Atlanta Falcons strive for 2016 success in NFC South preview

Jay Asser 6/09/2018
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Teams in the NFC South will have to earn everything this season in a division that is competitive from top to bottom.

The New Orleans Saints are positioned at the top as Super Bowl contenders, followed by the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, who have the pieces to make noise in the postseason.

Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are the division’s ‘weak spot’, have the offensive weapons to win any given week.

Learn more about the four teams with our NFC South team guides.


Head coach: Dan Quinn

Star player: Julio Jones

Last season: 10-6, lost in Divisional Round

Key ins: Justin Bethel (Arizona), Brandon Fusco (San Francisco), Calvin Ridley (rookie), Isaiah Oliver (rookie), Deadrin Senat (rookie)

Key outs: Adrian Clayborn (New England), Taylor Gabriel (Chicago), Dontari Poe (Carolina)

Strengths: Offence was the team’s calling card two years ago in their Super Bowl run, but the other side of the ball is emerging and full of young talent.

Weaknesses: Red zone inefficiency hurt them last season as they ranked 22nd in touchdown conversation rate (49.1 per cent).

Verdict: Offence has to get back near 2016 levels, otherwise they won’t have the firepower.

at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 7, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.


Head coach: Ron Rivera

Star player: Luke Kuechly

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

Key ins: C.J. Anderson (Denver), Dontari Poe (Atlanta), Da’Norris Searcy (Tennessee), Torrey Smith (Philadelphia), D.J. Moore (rookie), Donte Jackson (rookie)

Key outs: Andrew Norwell (Jacksonville), Star Lotulelei (Buffalo), Jonathan Stewart (NY Giants), Charles Johnson (retired)

Strengths: Front seven remains the heartbeat of the team as they racked up the third-most sacks in the league last year (50).

Weaknesses: Injuries on the offensive line could haunt them all season.

Verdict: Will have a hard time matching last year’s record, but another playoff berth isn’t farfetched.



Head coach: Sean Payton

Star player: Drew Brees

Last season: 11-5, lost in Divisional round

Key ins: Teddy Bridgewater (NY Jets), Jermon Bushrod (Miami), Demario Davis (NY Jets), Cameron Meredith (Chicago), Patrick Robinson (Philadelphia), Ben Watson (Baltimore), Marcus Davenport (rookie)

Key outs: Kenny Vaccaro (Tennessee), Senio Kelemete (Houston), Willie Snead (Baltimore)

Strengths: Running game between Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram powers the rest of the offence.

Weaknesses: Are relying on rookie Davenport to make a major impact with his pass rush right away.

Verdict: Arguably the most balanced team in the league with few holes on the roster.



Head coach: Dirk Koetter

Star player: Gerald McCoy

Last season: 5-11

Key ins: Jason Pierre-Paul (NY Giants), Vita Vea (rookie), Ronald Jones (rookie)

Key outs: Clinton McDonald (Denver), Doug Martin (Oakland), Robert Ayers (free agent), Chris Baker (free agent), Joe Hawley (retired), Robert McClain (free agent), T.J. Ward (free agent)

Strengths: Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick have an explosive group of pass-catchers to throw to.

Weaknesses: Pass defence last year was horrific as they ranked last in yards allowed (260.6) and sacks (22).

Verdict: Jobs appear to be on the line this season, from the field to the sidelines to the front office, and everyone has reason to be worried.


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