Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 1.
1) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Let the front seven dictate the defense.
The 49ers have made attempts to beef up their defensive front for several years. This offseason, though, they made several moves that should have an immediate impact. General manager John Lynch acquired linebacker Kwon Alexander (free agency) and edge rusher Dee Ford (trade with Kansas City), and drafted a group of talented defensive players led by pass rusher Nick Bosa. This defense must feed off its front seven, as Ford and Bosa can be elite players off the edge and DeForest Buckner's growth on the interior should make life difficult for QBs.
The 49ers finished last season deep in the dungeon in takeaways and owned the league's worst turnover differential (-25). But that should change if they can consistently generate pressure up front. Allowing Ford and Bosa, who's working his way back from an ankle injury, to consistently get after the quarterback should lead to increased pressure and more errant throws, helping the team climb out of the turnover cellar. The 49ers tallied a grand total of two interceptions, by safeties, after their opponents threw 542 passes against them. Yuck! Shutdown corner Richard Sherman didn't have a single pick in his first season with the Niners -- in part, because quarterbacks tend to shy away from him -- after tallying a combined 32 interceptions in seven years in Seattle. He -- and the rest of the D -- must be champing at the bit to get their hands on some passes.
A quick overview of the last year and a half: Kirk Cousins was the prized jewel of the 2018 free-agent class, and the courtship between Vikings brass and Cousins might have only been outdone by the Royal Wedding. If the organization is going to capture the dividends on their massive investment in the QB, then Cousins will have to make good on his own goal and be better than "a .500 quarterback."
By letting Cousins do what he does best. In the three seasons before joining Minnesota, Cousins ranked first in passer rating (116.0) and second in completion percentage (70.9) and passing yards (3,307) on play-action passes, per Pro Football Focus. Yet, in 14 games under former Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, Minnesota had the sixth-lowest rate of play-action passes in the league. Talk about not putting players in a position to succeed! After DeFilippo was fired and replaced by Kevin Stefanski going into Week 15, Minnesota's play-action usage increased from 8.3% to 28% of all dropbacks, the 12th-highest mark in the NFL.
With Stefanski sticking in the OC role this season, it'd be wise for him to utilize play-action even more this season. Not only will play-action help Cousins' production, but it should help the offensive line with protection, which in turn will allow Cousins' top two wideouts (Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen) more time to beat coverage and get further downfield for big plays. The Vikings also brought in offensive advisor Gary Kubiak to help the run game, signed veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph to an extension and have a healthy Dalvin Cook. The pieces are in place for Cousins to maximize his skill set and get this offense rolling.
3) DENVER BRONCOS: Keep it simple on defense.
Denver can surprise the AFC West and, perhaps, even the NFL this season if first-year Broncos head coach Vic Fangio works his magic like he has for years as one of the league's premiere defensive coordinators. His method is rather simple. He puts elite players in position to take advantage of matchups and to attack protections. Fangio doesn't ask his players to overthink any situation. We saw this play out week after week in Chicago last season, as Fangio's Bears defense ranked in the top five in nearly every major category, including first in scoring and takeaways.
In Chicago, Fangio worked with one of the NFL's best pass rushers in Khalil Mack. Now the Broncos coach has two superstars to unleash on opposing quarterbacks. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are arguably the league's best pass-rushing tandem -- they combined for 26.5 sacks in 2018 (second-most by a teammate duo) -- and they will undoubtedly set the tone in Fangio's defense. This fierce pass rush combined with interior pressure from Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis will lead to fumbles, tipped passes and opportunities for the back end of the defense to get hands on a lot of footballs. Fangio's unit often uses part of practice to work on tipping throws and forcing turnovers.
Takeaways are so important from a momentum and field-position standpoint. The Broncos kicked it into high gear in the second half of last season, generating 16 takeaways over the final eight games. They have a great chance to pick up where they left off if Fangio keeps it simple and allows his stars to play as fast as possible. Fangio's defense could very well create 35 takeaways this season, which will only help fuel a young offense.