Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

AFC South Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 2, 2009

This division offers my biggest shocker (there is always at least one).  Teams listed in order of finish.

1. Houston Texans – The Texans have not exactly experienced success since their inception in 2002.  Frankly they have not even been close to being a playoff team.  However,  I think things are about to really turn around for this team.  Last season they finished .500 for the first time, winning five of their final six games in the process, including wins over Tennessee (the AFC South champ and top playoff seed), Green Bay (at Lambeau) and Chicago in the finale, knocking the Bears out of the playoffs.  Granted, the Texans started out 0-4 and had some stumbles along the way, but this appears to be a team ready to break out.

Houston’s offense has very quietly become one of the scariest units in the league.  I would say the offense was already playoff quality at the end of the season, and is only bound to be better this year.  Quarterback Matt Schaub is very underrated as a game manager, and he has shown continual improvement.  Schaub is no slouch either when it comes to arm strength, and it doesn’t hurt that he has some terrific receivers to help him stretch the field.  Schaub’s biggest issue has been an ability to stay healthy, but when he’s been in there he has posted very good numbers.  That concern was not eased for Texans fans this week when Schaub hurt his ankle against the Vikings.  Schaub says there is nothing to worry about for the opener, but his health is key for success in Houston.  If he is healthy, I am predicting a Pro Bowl year for Schaub, because I think he is very good and so is the talent around him.  Wide receiver Andre Johnson is a no doubt top 3 wide receiver in the league.  Johnson led the league with 115 catches last year and a lot of them were of the spectacular variety.  Paired with the quietly successful Kevin Walter on the other side, the Texans have a pair of 6-3 targets for Schaub to throw to.  Factor in third receiver Andre Davis, as well as David Anderson, and Houston has depth at the position.  Tight end Owen Daniels is also coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and he has great ability as a receiver as well as a blocker in the running game.  Speaking of which, the Texans really found a gem at running back last year in Steve Slaton.  All Slaton did in his rookie season was post over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns.  He can run, catch, block, you name it.  Ryan Moats and Chris Brown will be called upon to keep Slaton fresh during the season.  Houston’s offensive line is young, but the players seem to be adapting well to the zone blocking scheme installed by Alex Gibbs, a system that Denver has used like clockwork for the past 15 years.  The key is keeping Schaub healthy, but if he is the Texans offense will put up monster numbers all year.

The defense has continued to get better in recent seasons, and the Texans hope that the final pieces are now in place.  Houston bolstered the defensive line with the additions of end Antonio Smith from Arizona, and tackle Shaun Cody from the Lions.  They will join an already capable group of tackles in Travis Johnson and Amobi Okoye.  The idea is to rotate linemen and keep them fresh, and Houston now has the depth to be able to do that.  Oh, and the Texans also have Mario Williams lining up at the other defensive end.  Coach Gary Kubiak and his staff were roundly criticized in 2006 when they passed on Reggie Bush with the first pick in the draft to take Williams.  Williams has proven the critics wrong by collecting 26 sacks over the past two seasons.  With the new additions along the line, it is scary to think that Williams might actually have more sack chances coming his way.  The linebackers are also very good, led by DeMeco Ryans, who also came in 2006.  Ryans is the leader of the defense.  He plays hurt, and isn’t afraid to take on any blocker or go to any lengths to make a tackle.  The Texans hope the additions of Cato June from the Colts as well as first round pick Brian Cushing of USC will round out the linebacking core.  The Texans secondary was inconsistent last year, but they hope an improved pass rush will lead to better results back there.  Dunta Robinson is the team’s best cornerback, with the rest of the group being young and inexperienced.

Kicker Kris Brown has been a Texan since the team’s inception in 2002, and he is still accurate as ever.  Punter Matt Turk had a subpar year last year, and he’ll need to get more oomph on his punts to keep the job.  Andre Davis was not near as good on returns last year as he was two years ago, but he’ll get another crack, along with Jacoby Jones.

The Texans appeared to finally get close to turning the corner last season, rallying at the end to finish .500.  They do play in a difficult divison, but they also get a friendly schedule in which they don’t have to see AFC powers Pittsburgh or San Diego.  I think this is a year the Texans turn the corner and make their first ever playoff appearance.

5932. Indianapolis Colts – The Colts have a surprising amount of changes this year for a team that had been the definition of stability for the past decade.  Head coach Tony Dungy is retired, replaced by Jim Caldwell.  There is also a new defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, who has been with numerous teams with little success.  Also gone is franchise staple Marvin Harrison, who is not officially retired but has yet to latch on with a team.  The Colts still have much of the same from past years and the usual very high expectations.  Last year they went 12-4, winning nine straight to close out the regular season, only to finish second in the division.  Worse, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to 8-8 San Diego.  That left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Colts, and they are hungry.

The offense is still excellent.  Peyton Manning’s credentials obviously speak for themselves, as long as he is under center, the Colts will automatically have a good offense.  Manning’s numbers did dip slightly last year after he had surgery in the offseason prior, but he started to find his groove again toward the end of the year, and still managed to win yet another MVP award, the third of his career, tying Brett Favre for most all-time.  I would expect Manning’s numbers to be better than last, and that could be bad news for opponents.  Despite the loss of Harrison, the Colts still have an outstanding receiving core highlighted by Reggie Wayne, who actually outperformed Harrison the past couple seasons, and Anthony Gonzalez, who is entering his third year and has shown that he is more than ready to step in and be a reliable target for Manning.  Tight end Dallas Clark is also one of the top receiving tight ends in the league, so Manning will not have any shortage of targets.  The running game took a big dip last year, finishing a surprising second to last in the league.  Joseph Addai did not look anywhere near the back who starred as a rookie in 2006.  Addai only hit 100 yards once last year, hence the first round selection of Donald Brown out of Connecticut.  This has very much the look of an open competition, and the Colts hope that one of the two will emerge and give the team a reliable ground threat again.  The offensive line isn’t expected to be much of an issue, although its strength has always been pass protecting as opposed to run blocking.  Center Jeff Saturday is still very solid, but there could be a question mark at left tackle, where Tony Ugoh is still a work in progress.

Defense has never been a staple in Indianapolis, but it hasn’t been much of an issue because the offense has been so explosive.  The Colts do have an outstanding tandem of pass rushing ends in Dwight Freeney (10.5 sacks last year) and Robert Mathis (11.5 sacks).  The Colts also addressed the line in the draft with their second round pick, defensive tackle Fili Moala of USC.  The Colts hope that he and Ed Johnson will be able to tie up blockers, allowing for more sack opportunities for Freeney and Mathis.  The linebacking core is very average, with Gary Brackett being the best of the group.  The secondary features one of the best hard hitting safeties in Bob Sanders, who is outstanding in stuffing the run.  The corners are inexperienced, but the Colts have high hopes for Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson.

Kicker Adam Vinatieri might be a future Hall of Famer, so the Colts are set there.  The punter will be rookie Pat McAfee, who had a good career as a punter and kicker at West Virginia.  The Colts still don’t really have anyone set to return kicks and punts, with Chad Simpson and Pierre Garcon as possibilities.  Needless to say the return game is a big unknown for the Colts.

I still think Indianapolis is a playoff team mainly because of Manning, but they seem to be heading down, not up.  Still, this is a dangerous team always, and they will be a factor.

3. Tennessee Titans – Last year the Titans were a big surprise, racing out to a 10-0 start, finishing 13-3 and landing the top seed in the AFC.  However, they suffered a home defeat to Baltimore in their first playoff game that left a bitter taste in their mouth.  The organization also had a very rough offseason with the shooting death of legendary quarterback Steve McNair, who took the team to its only Super Bowl in 1999.  Tennessee also lost its most important defensive player, Albert Haynesworth, to free agency.  Jeff Fisher’s teams always push through and find a way to play well, but they will a have a rough road to repeat as division champ.

Kerry Collins ended up with the starting quarterback job by default last year after Vince Young has his mental breakdown in the season opener.  Collins surprised everyone with a Pro Bowl appearance, and is returning for his 15th season in the NFL.  He still has a good arm and doesn’t make bad decisions, and that makes him a good fit for Jeff Fisher’s offense.  Young is back with the team, and has made bold statements about wanting to get his old job back.  His preseason performance so far has not justified those bold claims, but it could prove to be interesting to see how it affects the Titans if Young continues to make his presence known off the field.  It won’t affect Collins, who is as steady as professional as anyone, but the whole situation could have an effect on the team going forward.  The Titans did make an effort to improve their receiving core with the addition of Nate Washington, who was the third receiver in Pittsburgh.  Washington will start alongside Justin Gage, while first round pick Kenny Britt of Rutgers will also be expected to make an impact.  Still, Tennessee’s receivers as a group don’t seem to really scare anyone.  Tight end Alge Crumpler didn’t make the impact in the passing game that was expected when he signed as a free agent last year, but he and Bo Scaife are a good tandem in the running game and both are capable red zone targets.  The strength of the Titans offense lies in the running game, where Chris Johnson had a monster rookie season last year.  His speed and shiftiness makes him very difficult to tackle, and his speed makes him the perfect compliment to LenDale White, who can gain the tough yards between the tackles and is a perfect goal line back.  The offensive line is among the best in the NFL, anchored by veteran center Kevin Mawae.

Defensively, the Titans will be greatly impacted by the loss of Albert Haynesworth to Washington.  Haynesworth’s presence to the Titans defense has been so vital over the years that their wins and losses were often dictated by his health.  When Haynesworth was 100 percent, his presence made it virtually impossible for teams to run on the Titans.  When he was out of the lineup or hobbled, it completely changed the game because teams were then able to run on the Titans.  A lot of pressure will be on Jovan Haye and second round pick Sen’Derrick Marks of Auburn.  The Titans do have end Jevon Kearse, who has an excellent season last year at age 32.  The other end, Kyle Vanden Bosch, must show he is recovered from a groin injury.  The linebackers are an above average group, but age is a concern, as there is no depth behind Keith Bullock and David Thornton, both of whom are over age 30.  The secondary is solid with corners Cortland Finnigan and Chris Hope.

The kicking game is set with kicker Rob Bironas, the fifth most accurate kicker in NFL history, as well as veteran punter Craig Hentrich.  The return game is unknown right now, but the top candidate to handle those duties is Mark Jones, a free agent acquistion from Carolina.

Tennessee is bound to take a step backward after hitting 13 wins a year ago.  The loss of Haynesworth could be crippling, and the offense is decent but it remains to be seen whether Collins can duplicate his success of last year.  In the end this division will be too tough for the Titans.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars – The big story out of Jacksonville is that the Jaguars might not have a single home game televised in their home market due to poor ticket sales and an expectation that not a single home game will sell out.  The Jaguars have to rank as the single biggest disappointment in the NFL last season, for they fell from a 12-4 record in 2007, a season that included a road playoff win at Pittsburgh and an admirable performance the next week in New England, to a disastrous 5-11 record in 2008, highlighted (or lowlighted) by six losses in their final seven games.  The Jaguars did make some significant changes, but mostly of the departure variety.  Gone are veteran running back Fred Taylor, receiver Jerry Porter (a big time free agent bust last year), receiver Matt Jones, defensive end Paul Spicer, linebacker Mike Peterson, and cornerback Drayton Florence.  So what does Jacksonville have left?  Coach Jack Del Rio is back somewhat surprisingly, and there is some talent yes, but a lot of question marks,

Offensively, the Jaguars have a lot of question marks.  Quarterback David Garrard does have a lot of talent.  He has ability to make plays with his feet and he has an accurate arm.  However, last year he had trouble finding receivers and his leadership skills really came into question.  This is a make or break year for Garrard, and he will need to play well early to keep his job.  Considering his backup is Cleo Lemon, this will mean the Jags are in big trouble if Garrard doesn’t bounce back to his 2007 levels of production.  The food news for Jacksonville is the presence of Maurice Jones-Drew, who was re-signed in April for five more years.  Jones-Drew is one of the most dynamic runners in the league and also has great ability to catch out of the backfield.  There is no question that Jacksonville will rely on him heavily, but with Taylor’s departure he may need to be a one man show in the running game.  The receivers are an interesting mix, highlighted by addition Torry Holt from St. Louis.  Holt’s numbers dropped off so significantly last year with the Rams that they had no interest in bringing him back.  The Jaguars hope that a change of scenery will benefit him.  Dennis Northcutt and Tory Williamson provide some deep threats as well, but neither has been consistent in their production.  The Jaguars offensive line was a mess last year due to injuries, so they hope that a healthy group will mean better production in that area.   New addition Tra Thomas from Philadelphia should also help.

When Jacksonville made their playoff run two years ago, the defense was the backbone of the team.  That unit is not even close to the same group now.  It actually started last year when they lost star defensive tackle Marcus Stroud to Buffalo in free agency.  John Henderson remains one of the best in the business, and he will be glue for Jacksonville’s offensive line.  End Reggie Hayward is also good at rushing the passer, but the rest of the line is a work in progress.  The Jaguars are hoping for a better season from Derrick Harvey, who failed to meet expectations last year as a rookie.  The linebackers are unknown but are actually solid, with Daryl Smith leading the way in the middle.  The secondary has good talent as well, with cornerback Rashean Mathis leading the way, along with safety Reggie Nelson.  It is imperative for the Jaguars that this unit return to 2007 levels as well after being a disappointment last year.

Kicker Josh Scobee is very accurate, but punter Adam Podlesh may be on the hot seat.  The return game is also middle of the pack in the league, with Troy Wlliamson and Brian Witherspoon handling the return duties.

The Jaguars don’t seem to have a clear plan as to whether they are contending or rebuilding.  Either way, I don’t expect a return to 2007, but rather more of the same from last season.  even if they improve, they do play in a very difficult division, so either way it will be a long year for Jacksonville.

Coming next: the NFC South

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