NFP Sunday Blitz

The 49ers went from two Pro Bowlers last year to an NFL-high eight this year–a testament to what can happen when you create the proper environment and give good coaches the right players. What happened in San Francisco isn’t about a team becoming considerably more talented as much as it is about a team becoming considerably more of a team.

“What it comes down to is coaches doing an excellent job in a tumultuous offseason, without time to get to know them to understand their strengths, weaknesses and hot buttons,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke told me. “It comes down to players buying in as quickly as they have, working as hard as they have, gelling as well as they have as a team, and putting the team above the individual.”

Of course, selecting the right players has something to do with it to. Baalke has done so well in assembling the pieces that he is a strong candidate for NFL executive of the year.

Even though Baalke and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh agreed in the offseason they had a nucleus of players that was capable of winning a lot of games, they didn’t set out to sign big name, big money free agents who could put them over the top. In fact, their cautious initial approach drew criticism back in July.

BaalkeJim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke: a good team.

They were out to find players who were good values and good system fits. That’s why they decided to allow some of their own players such as Nate Clements, Aubrayo Franklin, David Baas and Joe Nedney to sign elsewhere. That’s why they retained some of their own free agents such as Dashon Goldson and Ray McDonald. And that’s why they eventually signed free agents from other teams such as Carlos Rogers, Jonathan Goodwin and Donte Whitner.

The 49ers weren’t trying to acquire talent so much as they were trying to become a better team with their parameters that Harbaugh set. “There are only so many players in the National Football League who, regardless of system, can come in and perform at a high level,” Baalke said. “After that, it’s system fit. I learned that a long time ago. Coach [Bill] Parcells was the guy I looked at and learned the most from, he and Dick Haley. That was always the question with them, how do they fit what we are going to ask him to do? For us, it’s critical.”

Rogers is a good example. Baalke was familiar with him because he was on the Redskins’ scouting staff in 2005 when Washington made Rogers the ninth pick in the draft. He felt confident Rogers would fit the 49ers from a personality and intangible standpoint.

Baalke also knew Rogers had talent befitting a player chosen with the ninth overall draft pick, even though he may not have always shown it with the Redskins. Because Jim Haslett’s defense with the Redskins is similar to Vic Fangio’s defense with the 49ers, it was easy for the 49ers to evaluate Rogers from a skill perspective. There wasn’t a lot of projecting going on. In Washington, he played outside in base and moved over the slot in nickel and dime packages, just as he would be asked to do in San Francisco. Most of the techniques he majored in with the Redskins are the same techniques he has majored in with the 49ers.

Rogers has flourished in the environment created by Harbaugh. He has had the best season of his life, making the Pro Bowl for the first time and coming up with a career best six interceptions.

David Akers, the free agent kicker acquisition, also has had a career year for the 49ers, breaking the all-time record for field goals in a season and leading the league in scoring. Akers is with the 49ers because Harbaugh thought a premium kicker was necessary given the unusual circumstances of the season and the type of team the Niners had, and because 49ers special teams coach Brad Seely identified Akers as the best available kicker. Akers was worth a little more money because of the way he enhanced the team philosophy.

Goodwin was another fit. Maybe he wasn’t the most gifted center available, but he was an even-keeled, intelligent veteran who could be a calming influence to a young offensive line that had yet to come together. He has controlled the line for the 49ers, making the calls and setting the tone.

What the 49ers teach us is great things can be accomplished when everyone works towards the same goals.

Things I Didn’t Used To Know

*The Lions are trying to extend the contract of Cliff Avril. The team may regret waiting until late in the season to try to lock up the defensive end, who has 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. His value has skyrocketed through the course of the season. At 25, Avril is just starting to come into his own. “He is an elite, playmaking pass rusher who is going to get better,” Avril’s agent Brian Mackler told me. One way or another, the Lions are not likely to let Avril hit the open market. The franchise tag for defensive ends this year is expected to be in the vicinity of $10.5 million, and that remains a viable option if the two sides can’t come to an agreement on a long term deal.

GrudenDon't expect to see this face anytime soon.

*Despite the rumblings, it’s still a long, long, long shot that Jon Gruden returns to coaching. He’s making too much money at ESPN and is too comfortable in his lifestyle to come back for anything other than a situation that is a slam dunk Super Bowl winner.

*Two coordinators for New York teams, Brian Schottenheimer and Perry Fewell, may be on shaky ground with the Jets and Giants, respectively, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in play for head coaching openings. In fact, it will be an upset if both don’t at least get interviews.

*Returning to Philadelphia as defensive coordinator is likely to be a possibility for Steve Spagnuolo after he is fired by the Rams, but it won’t be the only possibility. Spagnuolo is likely to be pursued by multiple teams for defensive coordinator openings and one month from now could very well be the highest paid defensive coordinator in the NFL. The Eagles could be the most logical team though. I’m told there is no bad blood between he and Andy Reid, and Spagnuolo’s wife Maria is from Philadelphia.

*Brandon Browner is a perfect example of a player being in the right place at the right time. The cornerback was cut by the Broncos. He worked out for the Bucs, Vikings, Bills, Dolphins without impressing any team enough to sign him. He worked out for the Seahawks twice and was told no thanks. So he went to the CFL, which is a good place to be for developing cornerback skills. Scouts say he learned to play with balance and body control. The Seahawks discovered him a third time, but this time they were playing the perfect scheme for him, one in which their corners are asked to press frequently. Browner wouldn’t fit on a lot of teams. But at 6-3, 220, he’s perfect in Seattle. Browner’s arms measure 33 inches—that’s nearly OT length. The Seahawks don’t need their corners to be burners, and Browner isn’t one. He ran the 40 in 4.59 and 4.60 recently. The lack of speed has resulted in Browner being flagged six times for pass interference (tied for most in the league), three times for illegal contact (tied for most in the league) and four times for defensive holding (tied for third most in the league). But Browner, a Pro Bowl alternate, has made plays on the football, as evidenced by his six interceptions.

*The Packers and Lions will meet for
the 165th time Sunday, but this is the first game in which both teams have had double digit victories.

My Sunday Best: Players Who Didn’t Make the Pro Bowl

You could field a team of non-Pro Bowlers that is nearly as good as the NFC or AFC Pro Bowl teams. A good number of players who didn’t make the initial cut will end up being invited to the Pro Bowl because players who did make the cut will back out for various reasons. Matt Bowen gave you some of his best players who didn’t make the Pro Bowl here. Here are mine.

QB—Tony Romo, Cowboys. You can make a good case for Matthew Stafford, and many have. I’ll go with Romo though, who, strangely, remains an underrated player despite his high profile position. He has a 102.2 passer rating, which is fourth highest in the league, an average completion of 8.0 yards, a completion percentage of 65.4 and a first down percentage of 38.6. All of those numbers, by the way, are better than Stafford’s. They also are also better than the numbers of Pro Bowler Eli Manning, with the exception of average per completion. Manning is at 8.3.

RB–Adrian Peterson, Vikings. He played in only 12 games and ended the season on injured reserve, but he still was one of the very best backs in football when he played. Peterson averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 80.8 yards per game despite not having much help from the Vikings offense.

WR–Victor Cruz, Giants. Was there a better big play receiver in the NFL this year? He averaged 17.9 yards per catch (third highest among receivers with at least 50 catches) and had 21 catches of 20 yards or more.

TE- Jason Witten, Cowboys. He isn’t just a receiver, which separates him from some of the tight ends who made the Pro Bowl. Still, Witten averaged an impressive 12.2 yards per catch.

OT—Andrew Whitworth, Bengals. Without this guy, you might not be hearing so much about Andy Dalton. Whitworth is having a fine season.

G–Andy Levitre, Bills. He has been the best, most consistent player on a pretty good offensive line. Levitre has even filled in at left tackle and center.

C—Chris Myers, Texans. There is a strong argument to be made for his linemate Duane Brown as well. The Texans are among the league’s most proficient teams both at run blocking and pass blocking, and it starts with Myers, who is playing as well as any center in the game.

PeppersIt's no secret among offensive linemen that Julius Peppers is one of the best.

DE–Julius Peppers, Bears. He doesn’t have the kind of sack numbers a lot of pass rushers do, but Peppers is a force on virtually every play. Just ask any offensive tackle who has had to block him one on one.

DT–Geno Atkins, Bengals. He has lifted the intensity of his teammates on defense and been a breakthrough player. Ndamukong Suh is awfully good as well.

MLB–Brian Cushing, Texans. He has been the heart of one of the league’s best defenses. Washington’s London Fletcher could have made it too.

OLB–Aldon Smith, 49ers. How does a guy have 15 sacks and not make the Pro Bowl? If you had to pick a 4-3 outside linebacker who didn’t make the cut, you’d look hard at Sean Weatherspoon of the Falcons.

CB–Cortland Finnegan, Titans. He is more than just a cover man, he’s a football player. What other teams think of him will be evident if the Titans allow his contract to expire in the offseason and he becomes a free agent.

S—Jairus Byrd, Bills. There aren’t a lot of safeties who are playing at a very high level this year, but Byrd is a solid all-around safety with ball skills.

KR—Devin Hester, Bears. His 17.3 punt return average is second highest in NFL history among players with at least 20 returns.

K—Mason Crosby, Packers. He doesn’t get noticed much, but Crosby has been very consistent both with field goals and kickoffs.

P—Britton Colquitt, Broncos. He gets penalized by Pro Bowl voters because of the altitude advantage he enjoys, but he would have been outstanding playing in Antarctica. He has averaged 40.4 yards per punt, he has forced 27 fair catches and put, 31 inside the 20.

Scout Talk: Inside/Middle linebackers in the 2012 Draft

Three underclassmen will add considerable quality to the middle linebacker class, as Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict and Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower all are expected to be first rounders. Without them, the middle linebacker class is very pedestrian.

At 6-3, 235, Kuechly doesn’t have ideal size but he plays bigger than his height and weight in part because of his outstanding instincts. He also has enough speed to play outside in a 4-3. Burfict’s stock may be down a bit after a so-so season, but he is a big, downhill linebacker who explodes on contact. A good workout will help him considerably. Hightower is a big hitter with a lot of talent who can be inconsistent. He also could play outside in certain schemes.

The fourth highest rated inside backer on some boards also is an underclassman, Kevin Reddick of North Carolina. His combination of toughness and instincts make him a fine prospect.

None of the seniors are so good that they transcend scheme fits. How teams rank them is going to depend on what kind of role the player would fulfill, and the ratings could vary significantly from team to team.

For instance, one personnel director told me he saw Cal’s Mychal Kendricks as a second round possibility because of his ability to play all three positions and his tackling ability. Another rated him as a sixth or seventh rounder.

Others who are being debated around the league include Jerry Franklin of Arkansas, who is known for his athleticism and production; Emmanual Acho of Texas, who isn’t as highly regarded as his brother Sam Acho who plays for the Cardinals; Chris Marve of Vanderbilt, who makes plays with effort and intelligence; and Audie Cole of North Carolina State, who is a good athlete with good size.

One Man Yelp: NFL Magazine

I’m a magazine guy. Always have loved to read them. I subscribe to several. Loved working for one when I was employed by The Sporting News.

So I was happy to see a new one in the marketplace. NFL Magazine is a glossy product, both in terms of paper and content. I’d like more journalism and less promotion though. It reads a little too much like a 128-page advertisement for the NFL.

Do we really need to know what Benjamin Watson received a red bike for Christmas when he was six years old? Or what Adrian Peterson looks like in a pinstripe suit? Or how they put on Marshall Faulk’s makeup in preparation for NFL Network duties?

The most substantive story is Thomas George’s Our Man Manning, which explores the argument that Peyton Manning should be the most valuable player this year. There are nice features from Phil Barber, Charles Chandler and Ray Didinger.

This magazine has potential, a lot of potential. A little more meat and a little less fluff would help realize it.

Hot Reads

*The league was a better one for having Jason Taylor in it. The retiring Dolphins great will be missed.

*Vikings fans are being encouraged to “beard themselves” in honor of retiring tight end Jim Kleinsasser. Representatives from Gillette, Schick, electrolysis clinics and waxing salons should picket the Metrodome.

*It’s great that the Bengals are lowe
ring ticket prices, but it would have made more sense to do it in years when their on-field product wasn’t worth the cost of a ticket. They’re not a bad value this year.

*Jon Gruden either is the savior of the Rams or a blowhard who doesn’t know the rules. Which is it?

*The flawed Pro Bowl voting process could be fixed if the NFL allowed personnel directors and pro scouts to do the selecting. They know talent better than anyone.

*Terrell Owens would love to play for the 49ers.

Ford ready to play for Raiders

Wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who has not played since Nov. 10 due to a foot injury, is expected to play in Sunday's regular-season against the San Diego Chargers.

According to the Oakland Tribune, Ford practiced all week long, and though he probably won't work on returns, should see some action as a receiver for the Raiders, who need to win and have some help to reach the postseason.

While Ford will be back, running back Darren McFadden remains out with his Lis franc injury, and defensive tackle John Henderson has been ruled out with a knee injury.

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Terry McCormick covers the Titans for</a>

Welker fined $10,000 for unauthorized hat

Wes Welker was hit with a $10,000 fine by the NFL, according to the Boston Globe, for wearing an unauthorized hat during a post-game inteview on Sunday.

Welker wore a hat that said “Bonk Breaker” on it, and the league apparently frowned upon it enough to penalize him for the incident.

Welker, who only recently moved into the Twitter realm, tweeted about the fine, “Got fined by the NFL for wearing a @Bonk_Breaker hat in an interview after the game. Thanks for warning me the other 16 weeks I wore the hat.”

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Fred Taylor wants Jags to hire Jeff Fisher

When Fred Taylor played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jeff Fisher once remarked that what was then called Alltell Stadium was the Tennessee Titans fifth home stadium in their relocation process from Houston to Nashville.

Now, with the Jaguars looking for a new head coach after the firing of Jack Del Rio, Taylor tells the Florida Times-Union that the ex-Titans coach should make Jacksonville his new home.</p>

“He’s going to be super motivated to go and kick Tennessee’s ***** each time they play,” Taylor said. “He’s a good coach. I think they throw out the whole rivalry thing and look at the standpoint of this guy’s been successful. It’s only twice a year he has to play his old team.”

Fisher left the Titans organization after the 2010 season after 17 years as head coach and is expected to be on a number of short lists for the coaching vacancies that arise this off-season.

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Dolphins to sit Bush against Jets

The New York Jets' slim playoff chances might have gotten a boost with the decision by the Miami Dolphins not to play running back Reggie Bush in the season finale.

Bush, according to the Miami Herald, will not play due to a sore knee with the Dolphins hosting the Jets and New York needing to win and have a number of other combinations work out in order to get to the playoffs.

Bush, whom the Dolphins traded for, finishes his best year as a rusher with 1,086 yards on just 216 carries and was one of the sparks of Miami's brief return to competitiveness after an 0-7 start.

Bush is the second key Dolphins player to be out of this game, as offensive tackle Jake Long was placed on injured reserve with a torn biceps suffered last week against New England.

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New Year's Eve bowl rundown

We continue our bowl coverage here at the NFP with a look at the five games taking place on New Year’s Eve.

Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6) at Noon ET on ESPN

The Aggies will be playing without Mike Sherman, who was let go after a disappointing 6-6 campaign. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will serve as interim head coach, but how focused will he be after accepting the head-coaching gig at Fresno State where he will replace longtime head coach Pat Hill?

Pat FitzgeraldICONPat Fitzgerald will be looking to lead NU to its first postseason win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats will be looking for their first postseason win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Certainly, Pat Fitzgerald, who has led NU to a program-record fourth consecutive bowl appearance, will have his squad motivated. But it will essentially be a road game for the ‘Cats in Houston at Reliant Stadium, though NU has played well away from home under the former All-American linebacker.

While Kevin Sumlin is a players coach, he won’t officially take over the program until after the game. And players loved Sherman. What will be the team’s mental state? Keep in mind that this is the same team that couldn’t close out contests in the second half all season long, particularly in showcase games against Oklahoma State and Arkansas. Five times this season the team had halftime leads of double digits and every time the squad lost. So its mental state is fragile.

Still, there’s no denying the talent of running back Cyrus Gray, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and fine receivers Ryan Swope and Jeff Fuller playing behind a sound offensive line. A&M will score — especially against this defense, one that will be playing without top corner Jordan Mabin — but can its own defense stop an NU offense that will have a healthy Dan Persa running the show? While he wasn’t able to do much with his legs this season as he recovered from his Achilles injury, he still led the Big Ten in passing at over 240 yards per game and he completed nearly 75 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns.

Keep an eye on: Kain Colter. The NU all-everything offensive performer has played quarterback, receiver and running back this season. In case Persa goes down, he’s someone who can fill in and this offense won’t miss a beat. He’s also emerged as a legit receiving weapon.

Sun: Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Utah (7-5) at 2 p.m. ET on CBS

This will be the second meeting between Georgia Tech and Utah, with the only other matchup being the 2005 Emerald Bowl when Utah defeated a ranked Georgia Tech team 38-10. Both teams will be making their second trip to El Paso. The Yellow Jackets defeated Texas Tech in 1970 and Utah shut out New Mexico on New Year’s Day in 1939.

Paul JohnsonCan Paul Johnson's triple-option offense finally click in the postseason?

The Yellow Jackets come in with nation’s No. 3 rushing offense, but it will face the Utes’ No. 7 rushing defense. The nice thing for GT fans is the fact that Paul Johnson’s offense actually had some semblance of a passing attack this year with Tevin Washington at quarterback and top receiving target Stephen Hill. A balanced offense will be necessary as the Yellow Jackets are trying to snap a six-game losing streak in bowls. And under Johnson, this triple-option attack has been grounded in the postseason.

After a 6-0 start, the Jackets cooled off considerably and lost four of their last six games. While they do have the ability to throw the ball, Utah would love to contain the rushing attack and grab an early lead. If Tech is forced to throw the football more when it’s trailing, Kyle Whittingham’s defense will have the advantage.

The Utes had an up and down year in their first season in the Pac-12, recovering from an 0-4 start in league play to win four consecutive games and find themselves in the middle of the South division race despite losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn for the season with a shoulder injury. But a strong defense and terrific play from junior-college transfer running back John White helped quarterback Jon Hays transition into his new role as the starter and end the year with a bowl game despite ranking No. 110 in the country in total offense. But if it wasn’t for turnovers, they likely would have been able to claim a winnable Pac-12 South. Their regular season ended with an awful loss to Colorado, which snapped a 24-game road losing streak with the win.

Keep an eye on: GT’s ground attack vs. Utah’s rush defense. Simply put, this is the most important “game within the game.” The Jackets were third in the nation in rushing while the Utes finished seventh in rushing defense. Georgia Tech rushed for 44 touchdowns this fall while Utah allowed only six rushing scores. Something has to give in this one.


Chiefs, Succop agree to extension

The Kansas City Chiefs have agreed to a five-year contract extension with kicker Ryan Succop, according to

The deal contains a $2 million signing bonus and another $2 million in guaranteed salary for Succop, who was once Mr. Irrelevant as the last pick in the draft.

According to the report, Succop can maxout at more than $14 million with the contract if he meets all the incentive clauses.

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Q & A on NFL Scouting Combine invites

This week the first group of invitations to the annual NFL Scouting Combine went out. This initial group numbers about 250 players. The total number of players invited usually is about 335 players but it will be weeks before that final number is reached. In reality the players that received invitations this week are players who have completed their college season. The invited players who are in postseason bowl games won’t receive their invitations until after they play in their school's bowl game. Here are some questions and answers as to how the invitation process works.

Why an initial group of only 250 players?

Robert Griffin IIIWill Robert Griffin III be an early entry into the NFL Draft?

At this point in time, we don’t know what underclassmen will be entering the draft. So the league needs to save space for those players. Underclassmen have until January 15 to declare for the draft, then have another three days to rescind their application if they so desire. So it’s not until midnight on January 18 that the NFL knows what underclassmen will be in the draft. The clubs receive the names of these players the morning of January 19.

How is the original group of invitees determined?

There is a committee of about 10 people who vote on what players are invited. The 10 consists of a representative from each of eight clubs plus a representative from National Football Scouting and Blesto, the two scouting organizations that most clubs are members of.

Each name is brought up individually by position and they are voted on. They have to receive a greater than majority vote (about seven votes) to get an invitation. Most if not all of the original 250 get the seven votes required.

How many underclassmen are invited?

That number is determined by the total number of underclassmen who enter the draft. That number can change from year to year, but usually numbers around 40-45 players. Like the seniors who are invited to the combine, this group is voted on by the committee. The vote usually takes place within a few days of when underclassmen who have declared for the draft becomes public.

How do the remaining players get invited?

After the underclassmen are invited the total number of invitations usually is somewhere between 290 and 300 players. That means that there is room to invite another 35-45 players. Out of that number comes the kickers, deep snappers and “throwing” quarterbacks. That number is usually about 15. After that, the players who received the highest number of votes who haven’t already been invited fill out the Combine roster.

Can a team lobby for a player to be invited?

Yes they can, but it really doesn’t do any good. The people that run the Combine try and keep the process fair and with all invitees voted on.

Does every player invited get drafted?

No, with the compensatory picks the usual number of players who get drafted is around 250. Every year there are 35–40 players who were not invited to the Combine that get drafted, so that means only about 210-215 of the invited players end up getting drafted by a club.

Why weren’t these payers invited?

There can be various reasons as to why they weren’t invited but usually it’s because they didn’t receive enough votes from the committee. This happens every year and many times it’s because not all the clubs have scouted the player during the season and he still is bit obscure to the scouting community. I know that when I was a Director of Scouting I loved it when a player we had a high grade on didn’t get invited. This is a competitive business and if I know something that some of the other 31 clubs don’t know then it’s to my advantage. The bottom line is you have to trust that your scouts have done a good job finding players.

Insight Bowl Prospect Preview

The top five…

FlemingICONFleming is one of the most underrated corners in the draft.

1. CB Jamell Fleming: Oklahoma (5-11, 191)
He's a balanced, coordinated kid who keeps his feet under him when changing directions and can turn and run. Doesn't give up much separation, knows how to make plays on the football and if he can improve as a tackler looks like a guy who warrants a starting job in the NFL down the line.

2. OLB Travis Lewis: Oklahoma (6-2, 227)
He's a bit undersized and doesn't tackle as well as you would like inside the box. However, he's a good run and hit backer who plays the run well and will be able to make plays vs. the pass game in the NFL. Looks like a day one starter to me as a 43 backer, either on the weak side or possibly in the middle.

3. OT Markus Zusevics: Iowa (6-5, 300)
A “plus” run blocker who more than held his own in the pass game. He quickly gets off the football, generates a snap into contact and improved his pad level into/out of his stance as the year went on. Zusevics looks like a starting caliber offensive lineman -either at guard or tackle- in the NFL with a year or two of seasoning.

4. WR Marvin McNutt: Iowa (6-5, 215)
A tall, long armed receiver who can win off the line and use his big frame to box and go get the football. A big target who looks capable of fighting for a starting role now at the next level.

5. CB Shaun Prater: Iowa (5-11, 185)
Is still developing his feel in zone and needs to add more weight. However, he's smooth, fluid and coordinated in his drop and out of his breaks. Has a chance to start in the NFL, more of a zone corner though.

Check out the NFP Draft Page here…

Follow me on twitter: @WesBunting

Insight Bowl preview: Oklahoma-Iowa

The 2011-12 bowl season continues Friday night with the Insight Bowl between Oklahoma and Iowa in Tempe.

The Sooners are playing in their 13th straight bowl, all under head coach Bob Stoops. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, will be playing their 10th bowl game since 2001 and will look to extend their school-record bowl winning streak to four games. They will also look to win their second consecutive Insight Bowl after their dramatic win over Missouri last season.

Let’s take a look at this contest a little more closely…

Insight Bowl preview: Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5) at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN

Before the season began, many believed that Oklahoma was primed for a berth in the BCS national championship game in New Orleans. The Sooners bested Florida State in their big nonconference road test, but the team's glaring weakness showed up against Texas Tech in Norman: pass defense. The Sooners fell to the Red Raiders as well as Robert Griffin III and Baylor before being smashed by in-state rival Oklahoma State. While injuries played a role, no one could have foreseen such porous defensive efforts in their losses.

Blake BellICONCan Iowa contain Oklahoma's Blake Bell and the “Bell Dozer” formation?

Now, OU looks to finish the season on a high note in a rare December bowl game. But Stoops and Co. will have to do it without top receiver Ryan Broyles and leading rusher Dominique Whaley, who were lost for the season with injuries. Can Blake Bell and the “Bell Dozer” formation bring life to an offense that is struggling on the ground? And can quarterback Landry Jones finish the season — and perhaps his career in Norman — on a high note after the disaster against the Pokes? Oklahoma’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns will be going up against a Hawkeyes defense that had to replace many of their best players on the defensive line and safety this season, so Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker will be tested in his last game with the Hawks. But Jones has really struggled without Broyles, throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns in the past three games. Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde had the game-clinching pick-six in last year's bowl win over Missouri, so keep an eye on him and fellow corner Shaun Prater.

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes will be hard-pressed to establish any type of a ground attack with Marcus Coker suspended for disciplinary reasons. The sophomore finished the regular season second in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns on 281 carries. In addition, freshman running back Mika'il McCall has left the team, leaving head coach Kirk Ferentz with serious depth issues. Junior Jason White, a 5-10, 205-pounder, has carried the ball just three times this season, and freshman De'Andre Johnson, a 5-8, 200-pounder from Miami, has just 18 rushes for 79 yards in a very limited role this season. Brad Rogers, Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock also could get touches as they've received a similar number of carries in bowl practices.

Quarterback James Vandenberg leads a sound passing attack featuring receiver Marvin McNutt, who caught 78 passes for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns this fall. And they'll be facing an Oklahoma defense that ranks 83rd nationally against the pass. However, the Sooners' secondary will be greatly helped if the Hawkeyes can't run effectively and are deemed one-dimensional. OU also is one of the best pass-rushing teams in the nation, recording 37 sacks. And Vandenberg hasn't been great away from Kinnick Stadium this season.

Keep an eye on: The “Bell Dozer” formation. Bell has scored 10 touchdowns on just 31 rushing attempts in the last five games, and he's been crucial in short-yardage and goal-line situations, especially with Whaley out.

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