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Another NFL.com article talking about the Bengals

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Third WR could mean playoffs for these five

By Pat Kirwan

NFL.com Senior Analyst

(June 29, 2005) -- As I finish up the offseason and think about the teams hoping to jump from the pack of NFL clubs chasing their playoff dreams and turn them into a reality, I thought I would ask some of the people who have to play the teams on the rise about what they fear most about them.

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Is there a special quality that gives losing teams in 2004 a chance to win in '05? Is there an edge a 6-10 team has now they didn't have last season? Has their defense gone from a sieve to a block of granite? Does their offense now resemble a unit capable of scoring a lot of points? In short, what teams have created the opportunity to turn their fortunes around much like the Chargers did last season and how are they going to do it?

As one retired NFL coach said to me recently, "The first thing a coach has to do is get his best players on the field as much as he can, and then he has to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers."

I agree, and with that being said, I thought I would look at the Cardinals (6-10), Lions (6-10), Raiders (5-11), Bengals (8-8) and Texans (7-9) -- five teams with a combined 2004 record of 32-48 and a chance to change things around. What can they do to stress their opponents and give them the best chance for a winning record?

These teams are entering the 2005 season with expectations for improvement and a legitimate run at the playoffs. I asked a prominent defensive coordinator what could these five teams do that would be most problematic for opponents. We looked at their personnel groupings that would put the best players on the field, get the ball in the hands of the playmakers, stress the opposing defenses, and be prepared to play from behind.

Upstart teams don't just show up in September and dominate good teams they struggled against in the past. Most often, teams on the rise have to learn how to come from behind to win before they reach the level of dominating opponents. So a package that gives them the most scoring potential plus the ability to run the ball and incorporate maximum protection is critical.

The defensive coordinator and I agree that these teams would be hardest to stop if they came out with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back.

Ask yourself: Is it better to have the third wide receiver on the field instead of the fullback or a second tight end? In the case of these five teams, they look much better telling the third wide receiver to play more than the other two position players.

Look at Detroit, for instance: Do you think opponents want to see fullback Cory Schlesinger, second tight end Casey Fitzsimmons or wide receiver Mike Williams? If Schlesinger is in the backfield in front of Kevin Jones, the opposition drops a safety down in the box to stop the run. If Fitzsimmons is in a two-tight-end set, there is linebacker coverage for the extra tight end.

But if Mike Williams joins Roy Williams and Charles Rogers in the formation below, the defense has to first decide if it will play them with a base defense or nickel defense. If it's base, then a linebacker walks out on the slot wide receiver an wheter it is zone or man, the offense wins the matchup.

If the defense replaces a linebacker with a defensive back, then the ability to run the ball with Jones is enhanced.

Remember, Detroit offensive coordinator Ted Tollner was with Buffalo in its glory days when they used a three-receiver set of James Lofton, Andre Reed and Don Beebe. He knows what he has with this personnel grouping in Detroit: a major problem for every opponent!

Detroit is not alone with a powerful three-wide personnel grouping. Arizona now has Kurt Warner under center and his third wide receiver is Bryant Johnson. Do you think defenses want to see Johnson or fullback James Hodgins or second tight end Bobby Blizzard? Johnson caught 49 passes last year before Warner came to town; this year he could grab closer to 60 passes.

When Cincinnati lines up on offense does anyone think their opponents would rather see wide receiver Peter Warrick or Kelley Washington, or fullback Jeremi Johnson or second tight end Matt Schobel? From what is coming out of Bengal Land, in a year from now, receiver Chris Henry might be the best of all the slot receivers. As one NFC North coach said to me, "Rudi Johnson will get more yards rushing in the three-wide stuff than with a fullback leading him through the line or an extra tight end balancing up the defense."

Now in Oakland, LaMont Jordan could find plenty of room if the Raiders go three-wide often.

Oakland seems built to outscore opponents, and that might be truer when WR Ronald Curry joins Randy Moss and Jerry Porter than when any fullback or extra tight end is on the field. The Raiders traded second tight end Doug Jolley to the Jets and fullback Rob Konrad retired suddenly, so the Silver and Black might not even have a debate about which personnel grouping is the most dangerous. When opponents have to roll coverage to Moss and walk out on the slot wide receiver, LaMont Jordan is going to rush the ball like he has the old Green Bay Packers in front of him.

Houston is an interesting team that feels it is time for the postseason. Its three-wide package would scare me a lot more than anything else it would put on the field. Andre Johnson, Corey Bradford or Jabar Gaffney along with rookie speedster Jerome Mathis creates matchups FB Moran Morris or TE Billy Miller can't deliver.

The quarterbacks of these teams (Joey Harrington or Jeff Garcia in Detroit, Warner in Arizona, Kerry Collins in Oakland, Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, and David Carr in Houston) have the arms and decision-making ability to exploit the problems the three-wide package can cause. With the tight end and running back, they still can get in max-protection schemes if they face blitz pressures. I'm sure these five teams will blend in the other personnel grouping, but I'm also sure their opponents will be happy whenever there are two wide receivers on the field instead of three.

When I was with the Jets and we had to play those great Bills teams, occasionally we would see some things besides three-wide sets -- and it was a relief to us. When the Bills got in trouble, Jim Kelly would march out on the field with three receivers and bring his team back time and time again running and passing the ball. The five teams mentioned above would be wise to watch some old Buffalo tapes to see why the more of it they play, the more the opposing defenses will hate it. One of these teams is going to the playoffs this season and I would be willing to bet it will be the team that uses the most three-wide sets.

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