Defense does it in AFC East

(This week, Bengals.com will feature AFC divisional previews by Pat Kirwan, senior analyst for NFL.com. An experienced coach and NFL front office executive, Kirwan held several positions with the Jets from 1989-97, including defensive assistant coach, assistant pro personnel director and director of player administration. Prior to joining the Jets, he was a scout for the Buccaneers and Cardinals, as well as offensive coordinator at Hofstra University.)

By Pat Kirwan

NFL.com Senior Analyst

Before I get into each of the four AFC East teams, an overview of the division is necessary.

Make no mistake about it, this is a defensive-minded division. Before Buffalo fired Gregg Williams, all four head coaches in this division were former defensive coordinators, and the statistics reflected it.

Three of the teams -- Buffalo, New England and Miami -- all ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total yards allowed. This division also is home to five of the nine most productive pass rushers in the AFC with Adewale Ogunleye (Miami), Jason Taylor (Miami) and Shaun Ellis (New York) the top three sack leaders in the conference. Also, the top four cornerbacks in the division are as good as any group in the league. Adding Troy Vincent (Buffalo) to Patrick Surtain (Miami), Ty Law (New England), Nate Clements (Buffalo) and Sam Madison (Miami) gives the AFC East more shutdown corners than most divisions.

Conversely, the offenses seem to be victims of their own defensive success. Not one AFC East team was in the top half of the NFL in total offense, and not one offense was in the top 10 in third-down conversions or scoring.

The intra-division play can best be described by the Buffalo-New England games last year. Buffalo beat the Patriots in the season opener 31-0 and finished up the season losing to the Patriots 31-0.

Gone are the days of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Ken O'Brien and Boomer Esiason. Tom Brady clearly dominates the division. The two-time Super Bowl MVP threw more touchdowns passes than Drew Bledsoe and Jay Fiedler combined with 23, and he did it with 258 fewer attempts. If Chad Pennington can stay healthy, he might offset the Brady factor in 2004 -- but that's a big if.

This also seems to be a division where the rich get richer. Bill Belichick manages to keep his world championship staff together and have the most salary-cap space in the division. With Buffalo heading into the season with a rookie head coach, Miami entering with a rookie offensive coordinator and the Jets doing the same thing on defense, the Patriots might have a competitive edge on the sidelines. Time will tell.

One area that gives the teams chasing the Patriots a chance is at wide receiver. The Jets, Dolphins and Bills have gone out in the offseason and acquired a top-flight wide receiver to line up opposite their best wideout. Miami now has David Boston as an option if Chris Chambers gets extra attention; the Jets will line up emerging star Justin McCareins across from Santana Moss; and the Bills drafted speedy Lee Evans to take some pressure off Eric Moulds. New England can't put Law on both sides.

The five most important questions facing the AFC East this season are:

  1. Can anyone in the division stop New England? If not, will the Patriots return to the Super Bowl?
  1. What happens to the Jets if Pennington gets hurt now that they have no veteran backup?
  1. Can Dave Wannstedt get deep into the playoffs and save his job?
  1. Will Bledsoe rebound from a bad season or will J.P. Losman see the field?
  1. How much does Curtis Martin have left?

As I go through the teams, I will attempt to shed some light on these questions and offer some in-depth analysis of each team.

Buffalo

Bills fans had some run under Marv Levy, Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith, and they can't understand where the glory days have gone. Not too long ago, home-field advantage in Buffalo was a real weapon, but they've gone only 9-7 in Orchard Park over the past two seasons. Things have changed: Since 2000, there have been three head coaches, two GMs and a 90 percent change in the roster. The Bills have gone 4-8 in the division the past two years. Unless they learn to beat their AFC East foes the way they used to, the struggles will continue.

First and foremost, the Bills need to clean up the errors on the field. Their minus-16 turnover ratio last year was the worst in the AFC. The Bills also gave up a league-high 51 sacks. The good news: Buffalo lost four games by four points or fewer; those setbacks were directly tied to poor offensive production. In those losses, the Bills scored 14 points per game. New coach Mike Mularkey will find creative ways to score points.

Who is the best running back in the AFC East? Ask anyone and you'll probably hear Ricky Williams or Curtis Martin or Corey Dillon, who's now with the Patriots. But the truth is Travis Henry had three of the top five rushing performances by an AFC East back last season. With Willis McGahee now healthy, the Bills will pack an excellent one-two punch.

The defense is one pass rusher short of being a top-flight unit. The Bills stop the run as well as anyone in the NFL and overcame the loss of cornerback Antoine Winfield with the signing of Troy Vincent. Their linebackers -- Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey -- can all run and, unlike many teams, stay on the field in a lot of passing-down situations.

Finally, new head coaches in the past five years have had only 12 winning seasons (as opposed to 25 losing seasons) so the numbers are working against Mularkey. But Bledsoe is a quality veteran with better weapons and possibly a better offensive line to protect him. With Losman in close pursuit of his job, Bledsoe will play well in 2004 and the Bills will get close to the .500 mark. Whether nine victories will be enough to get to the playoffs is another question.

Miami

Here's a team that was haunted all year by the Kickoff Weekend loss to the Houston Texans at home. The Dolphins wound up 10-6 and missed the playoffs, even though three teams with an identical record made it. The big perception about the Dolphins is they always fade down the stretch. Not true in 2003. They won five of their final seven games, including victories against the Bills and Jets in the final two weeks. In fact, they swept New York and Buffalo, and finished up 4-2 in the division. Their problems last year were against the Patriots. In the two losses, they scored only 13 points combined. But they rolled up their sleeves this offseason and went to work on the coaching staff and personnel.

This season, the Dolphins will use packages with five or six defensive backs on more than 50 percent of their plays. The addition of cornerback Reggie Howard and draft pick Will Poole will strengthen those units. They must get Ogunleye back on the practice field and ready for the season. He combined with Taylor for 28 sacks to give Miami the best pass-rush tandem in the NFL. Ogunleye has 24½ sacks in the past two seasons and he wants a blockbuster deal. He knows he has more sacks than Jevon Kearse and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, and negotiations will continue to be difficult. Ogunleye is threatening to stay away for the first 10 games; that would have a negative effect on the early season.

As for the offense, there are a number of critical questions. With Boston in the lineup, will the team throw the ball more? Even though neither Jerry Sullivan (wide receivers coach) nor Marc Trestman (quarterbacks) is responsible for the offense, I believe the Fish will add five or six pass plays per game. They have the weapons at wide receiver. Chambers caught 11 TD passes last season and Randy McMichael might be the best pass-catching tight end in the division. There's no doubt former offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be missed, and there are some who believe Wannstedt will have too much of a conservative influence over the offense. He knows his back is to the wall, and I suspect we will see more passing. Williams led all AFC backs last year with 50 receptions; we should expect about the same this year.

There is a serious quarterback issue in Miami between newcomer A.J. Feeley and returning starter Fiedler. From what I'm told, Fiedler has a commanding lead on the position -- at least for Kickoff Weekend. He knows the offense as well as the coaches do, and with Boston on the field he might have enough weapons to hold off Feeley, much like Jon Kitna held off Carson Palmer in Cincinnati last year.

Finally, Miami has to regain home-field advantage and protect leads. Wannstedt will keep his job if the team plays loose and the offense does a better job on third downs, where it ranked 26th last year. GM Rick Spielman has done an excellent job of fortifying the back end of the roster; there is quality depth if injuries become a factor. The Dolphins might not win the division, but they should make the playoffs with 10 or 11 victories.

New England

No one threw the ball more than the Patriots in the AFC East last year, and it was a winning formula. But the most important personnel move in the division this past offseason was trading for Dillon. He'll love the change of scenery and easily could rush for over 1,000 yards. In 2002, Dillon caught 43 passes; I expect him to top that number this season.

The Patriots have the best home-field advantage in the East; they were 8-0 last year and 5-3 in 2002. They also have gone 9-3 in the division over the past two seasons. They do it with a quarterback who is the best signal-caller in the game today, a team that was plus-17 in turnovers last season, a defensive scheme that created a league-high 29 interceptions and posted three shutouts in their last four home games, and a special-teams unit that creates a competitive edge.

If you throw out the first-game debacle to Buffalo, the Pats gave up only four touchdowns in their other five divisional games. That's domination. The return of Rosevelt Colvin, who missed the season last year due to injury, and first-round draft pick Vince Wilfork will make the world champions' defense even better. Once again, Belichick has the weapons to create any defense for any given reason at any given time. That is an edge no one has in the NFL.

There are also emerging stars on offense. Wide receiver Deion Branch and super-fast KR/WR Bethel Johnson are poised for big seasons in 2004. Before backup QB Rohan Davey went over to Europe to play this spring, many thought New England needed another veteran quarterback. Now, many feel Davey is poised to become a quality player. The Patriots rarely make personnel mistakes under the watchful eye of GM Scott Pioli, and when the team passed on signing a veteran quarterback -- or drafting a quarterback with all their extra picks -- they knew they had something in Davey.

Finally, New England has won two of the past three Super Bowls. Barring injury, it has every right to believe it can win the division and get to Jacksonville in February. With over $1.6 million of cap space in June, the Patriots easily will get their rookies signed and have money left over to grab another veteran if they need one. The Pats are built to last.

New York Jets

The Jets are better than their 6-10 record of 2003 indicates, but it's hard to sell that to the fans when you start out 0-4 and finish up 0-2. Only Bill Parcells really turned the Meadowlands into a true home-field advantage situation. Last year, it was back to 4-4 after a 5-3 record the year before. It's tough to make the playoffs with fewer than six home victories, but a more critical situation was the divisional play. The Jets went 1-5 against the AFC East teams. That has to change ASAP.

During the offseason, New York missed on a few of its first choices when Antoine Winfield signed with Minnesota and John Lynch signed with Denver, but the Jets reacted quickly and inked David Barrett (Arizona) and Reggie Tongue (Seattle) to help improve a secondary that needed better players. With the addition of draft pick Derrick Strait, the Jets should have more flexibility with the back end of the defense. They also got younger at linebacker virtually overnight. They signed Eric Barton and drafted Jonathan Vilma, and released Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis. There are some rumors they will build a 3-4 package to complement their 4-3 defense. It's hard to do, but the Jets personnel looks perfectly suited for the concept. How much man-to-man coverage they want to play regardless of the front remains to be seen.

On offense, their best personnel grouping could be three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back. The question will be the health of WR Wayne Chrebet. If he is fully recovered from his concussion problems, opposing defenses would rather see fullback Jerald Sowell or second tight end Chris Baker before Chrebet in the slot.

The biggest issue facing the Jets is to keep Pennington healthy. When he's on the field, they are capable of beating anyone. When he's on the sideline, like he was last year, it's a different team altogether. The front office and coaches seem to have confidence in unproven backup Brooks Bollinger, but it still remains to be seen if he can do it.

A closer look at Martin might reveal the best thing to happen this offseason was not trading LaMont Jordan. Martin's production has slowed over the past two seasons -- seven rushing touchdowns in 2002, two in 2003. In 2000-01, he had 19 rushing touchdowns. In the past two years, he has had only 10 runs of 20 yards or more; he had 18 over the two previous seasons. He hasn't caught a touchdown pass since 2000. A plan to continue giving him over 300 carries a season might be a mistake. He's still an excellent player, but he might be more effective if 75 to 100 of his carries were given to Jordan.

Finally, the Jets have a new defensive coordinator in Donnie Henderson. From all the reports I've gotten, he's going to be a terrific coach in the NFL. He has to find a way to slow the Patriots down, keep Ricky Williams under wraps, and not let Bledsoe and company get the upper hand. The other challenge facing New York -- Pennington, Ellis and John Abraham, among others, are in the final year of their contracts. There's work to be done.

New York should battle Miami and Buffalo for the second spot in the division.

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