Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
25 Aug 2005
by Ned Macey
At a certain point I promised not to keep making fun of the Texans' offensive line, but the relative success of that unit is likely the key to the Texans making a run at the Wild Card. Therefore, it warrants discussion, and discussing the unit inevitably ends in ridicule. The most recent example of the line's shoddiness is the speed with which New Orleans castoff Victor Riley won the starting left tackle job.
Riley was the starting right tackle, i.e. the less important side, for New Orleans last year. New Orleans was so comfortable with him that they did not offer him a contract and traded up to get Jamal Brown out of Oklahoma. Riley was called for twelve penalties last season including eight false starts. It is not all bad with Riley, as according to our adjusted line yards, the Saints were much more effective running behind right tackle than anywhere else. Early in pre-season games those numbers seem to be borne out as Riley has been a powerful blocker. How he stands up in pass blocking -- and we have not broken down directions on offensive line play to that extent -- may be the bigger test.
The man he is replacing on the left side, Seth Wand, may have shown why the position battle was so short when filling in at right guard for the injured Zach Wiegert. He was regularly abused by Warren Sapp and gave up a sack to Ed Jasper. In one of the funnier articles I have read, the Houston Chronicle details how difficult it is to switch from tackle to guard. I understand there are differences, but it is much harder to go outside than inside, and the fact that Wand was so overmatched even inside is a good indication of why Riley won the job.
The one player who may be helping himself the most in the pre-season is Reggie Swinton. Swinton is a fifth-year wide receiver/kick returner out of Murray State. He seemed to have an uphill battle with the Texans having spent their fourth round pick on burner Jerome Mathis out of Hampton University. With burner Cory Bradford already on board to run deep routes, and Jabar Gaffney, Derick Armstrong, and Andre Johnson providing solid receiver depth, it was hard to see where Swinton fit. So far, however, he has caught a touchdown pass and been a dangerous punt returner, including a 57-yarder against the Raiders. To date, Mathis has not been used much as a return man, so Swinton may be safe for this year. Hopefully that does not mean the end of DVOA favorite Armstrong, and instead means the Texans are going to carry six wide receivers.
(What's DVOA? Our innovative stat Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here.)
The Colts' roster remains virtually unchanged from a season ago, but the one area they addressed in the off-season was their secondary. Drafting cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden and letting safety Idrees Bashir go to free up a starting position for Bob Sanders were moves made allegedly in response to poor tackling in the secondary against New England. While early returns from that investment are encouraging, perhaps the most positive news out of Colts camp is the impressive play of new middle linebacker Gary Brackett.
Brackett, a third-year player who was undrafted out of college, has been given the starting position despite the return of incumbent starter Rob Morris. Brackett is small, at only 5'11" and 235 pounds (compared to Morris at 6'2", 243), but he is very fast, a must in Coach Tony Dungy's version of the Cover-2. Some observers (OK, just the Colts' beat guy) felt that Morris would end up winning the job, but Brackett almost guaranteed himself the first shot with a two-interception performance against the powerful Bears offense. Brackett already has three career regular season interceptions (as a reserve) to go along with the two in the last preseason game. For his career, Morris has one interception in 68 regular season games.
The Colts were not immune to the injury bug a season ago, but most of their injuries came in the defensive secondary and offensive line. Their skill position players remained largely unaffected, with the quintuplets all playing the full season. This preseason, the Colts have been hit hard by injuries, including recent nicks to Jackson and Sanders. The most important injury that may linger into the regular season, however, is Brandon Stokley' s shoulder injury.
Stokley was the most productive receiver in football last year on a per play basis. While it is impossible to give all credit to Stokley, the Colts offense in 2004 -- the first season in which Stokley played a full season -- was substantially better than their offense at any other point in the Peyton Manning era. Their previous best was the 2000 offense with a 27.5% DVOA, second in the league. Last season, their offensive DVOA was 38.9%, best in the league and in fact, best of the DVOA era (1998-2004).
Stokley's time frame has him possibly coming back for the first game of the season at Baltimore, but he could also be unavailable until Week 3 when they will not need him against Cleveland. Last year against Baltimore, Stokley struggled with only three catches for 18 yards in a performance that upset fantasy owners in the playoffs everywhere. With the addition of Samari Rolle in Baltimore, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison will both be covered by Pro Bowl cornerbacks, meaning Stokley could be a difference maker if healthy. The Colts have an easy enough schedule where they can start thinking about home field advantage even if they lose to New England (again), but dumping their first game even against a quality opponent is not the way they want to start their season.
As time has progressed, the Football Outsiders family has morphed from being dominated by Brown alums to featuring more people with a University of Michigan connection than any other school. For us U of M fans, it has been a good camp for the Colts. The aforementioned Jackson has been the star of the camp and likely will enter the season as an immediate starter despite the return of three former starting cornerbacks. Also, linebacker Cato June appears likely to hold off challenges from Kendyll Pope and will likely be the Colts' leading tackler. Finally, Josh Williams returns as a starter at the defensive tackle position.
Most gratifying may be the decline of Mike Doss. Doss, a two year starter at safety, made The Ohio State University proud by getting arrested for firing a gun in public. The NFL suspended him for two games (the same as Jamal Lewis who served time for federal drug charges) forcing the Colts to slide Joseph Jefferson over to start the season. Doss has also been burdened by a groin injury throughout camp limiting his ability to impress coaches. As long as Jefferson plays competently in the team's first two games (and against the Ravens and Jaguars, he should not be too tested), he will likely retain the starting job throughout the season.
(Ed. note: I think the Brunonians still out number the Wolverines 4-3, unless I'm missing something ... Wolverines do have the advantage among the writers if we don't count "Photoshopping old Gil Thorps and re-writing the captions" as "writing.")
Going into the season, everybody knew that the Jacksonville would be a team whose defense was stronger than its offense. They probably did not realize, however, how many question marks would surround this offense. The biggest problem has been the injury to Fred Taylor, who is scheduled to make his preseason debut on Friday. Nobody is sure what to expect from Taylor, but word from Will Carroll is that we should expect him to be re-injured at some point during the season.
The early leader to be the number two back and intriguing late-round fantasy pick is Alvin Pearman, who has outshone LaBrandon Toefield in early action. Pearman was excellent in his first game, running for 64 yards on 11 carries. In the second preseason game against Tampa Bay, Pearman had 85 yards on 19 carries, Toefield 39 yards on 13 carries. All Jaguars running backs may have limited fantasy potential due to the presence of Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala to steal goal line carries. A year ago, Jacksonville running backs scored a total six touchdowns: three by fullback Greg Jones, one by Fuamatu-Ma'afala, and only two by Taylor. (Of course, do not take that advice too seriously, as I have been known to find any excuse to write the name Fuamatu-Ma'afala).
Making matters worse for the Jaguars is the continued injury struggles of tackle Mike Pearson, their best offensive lineman. Pearson is returning from major knee surgery and has yet to start playing. The Jaguars attempted to get an insurance policy with second round pick Khalif Barnes, but reports say he is lost early in camp. That leaves the Jaguars with Ephraim Salaam, who may best be described as serviceable. In their first preseason game, Byron Leftwich was sacked four times. Over the course of the two games, despite the Jags spending the offseason talking about how they are going to throw deep more often, Leftwich is averaging an Krenzelian 5.6 yards per completion, showing he does not have much time to sit in the pocket.
The one pleasant surprise has been a receiver they drafted to upgrade their poor receiving corps. No, not first round pick Matt Jones, who is probably fifth on the current receiver depth chart, but sixth round pick Chad Owens. Owens played the second preseason game as the team's number three receiver, somehow beating out Troy Edwards -- the 75th best receiver in football a year ago. In the regular season, Owens will probably see the field more as a kick returner than a receiver, even though he dropped a punt return in the last preseason game. As a receiver, however, he has caught 5 passes for 98 yards.
On defense, the Jaguars are set at every position except second cornerback. DeWayne Washington started all sixteen games a year ago but was shown the door due to his age. As a team, the Jaguars have ranked 22nd, 21st, and 19th in DVOA against #2 receivers the last three seasons. Against third and fourth receivers they were second in the league a season ago with a DVOA of -31.6%. Despite this, last year's nickelback Kiwaukee "The Ming of Beers" Thomas seems to have lost out in a battle to be not only the starter but even the nickelback. Veteran Terry Cousin is slated to be the nickelback, and the competition for the second cornerback starter is down to third round pick Scott Starks, Chris Thompson, and Kenny Wright. In a defense filled with solid players, the number two cornerback is going to be tested early and often, making this an extremely important position battle.
When I recommended the Titans draft Adam "Pacman" Jones before the draft, I was aware that he had some off the field problems. While that is always a warning flag, many successful NFL players have overcome mistakes they made when they were 20 years old, or in the case of Ray Lewis, almost 25. Having never talked with Jones, however, I was unaware that he is a rather odd individual, and the Titans cannot be happy with what he has done since they drafted him.
This early performance has taken place almost exclusively off the field because Jones did not get into camp until earlier this week after a protracted holdout. I generally side with players in contract disputes, but Jones's holdout could really affect the team. Having lost both of their starting cornerbacks, the Titans needed Jones to be ready by Week 1 in order to have any shot at a successful season. While this does give Jones leverage in negotiations, his absence from camp makes him a question mark for the starting spot on September 11, and even if he does win that job, he will not be at his peak ability.
What is more troubling is Jones's off-field behavior since being drafted. In July, Pacman was allegedly with friends who were smoking marijuana in a nightclub. When the nightclub owner asked them to leave, there was a minor scuffle. The nightclub owner does say that Jones was not smoking, so he has that on Randy Moss. Still, adding this incident to his problems at West Virginia, he ended up with a contract filled with language that will allow the Titans to void it if Jones continues to get in trouble.
Jones's most troubling exploit was his comments about criticism from his own teammates early in his holdout. He felt that his "teammates" who he has spent only mini-camps with were not being loyal enough. He came with one of my favorite quotes of recent times referring to Pro Bowler Keith Bulluck's comments: "But Keith saying he is not going to call me Pacman, he is going to call me Adam -- 'Who is Adam? I don't know if this guy can help us'â€”that is a little outrageous for my teammates to say that." I do feel for Adam, er Pacman, as I was very disappointed when MDS refused to call me by my preferred name, Qbert Macey, when I was in negotiations with Aaron.
After complaining that Bulluck had been dodging his calls and being told Bulluck had been attempting to call him, Jones came up with, "He called me at 7 o'clock in the morning when he knows I am not going to answer the phone." Sorry Pacman, but presumably Keith was busy during the day with something called practice. To top it all off and surely ingratiate himself with the team's best defender, Jones reminded the press that: "Keith has never been in the situation I am in -- Keith ain't never been drafted high." For a more detailed account of this spat, read the article at The Tennessean.
(Ed. note: I'm confused. I always thought the game was "Pac-Man" but apparently everyone has agreed to write this guy's nickname as "Pacman" with no hyphen. When was that decided?)
Meanwhile the Titans have actually played two off-season games that were very encouraging. Former MVP Steve McNair is supposedly down 20 pounds from the last couple years which Titans' boosters hope will allow him to be more elusive and avoid hits. To my mind, however, Steve McNair is no longer a running quarterback, and one of his strengths is his ability to stay in the pocket and take the hit. Twenty fewer pounds will not help him there.
While this sort of camp-speak is hard to take seriously, early action from pre-season is encouraging for the offense. Apparently aware that they have no cornerbacks of note, the Titans are focusing on a ball-control offense centered on short passing. Such a strategy can help McNair stay healthy a lot more than twenty fewer pounds.
Also encouraging is the play of the Titans' three rookie receivers. Roydell Williams, Courtney Roby, and Brandon Jones have all been impressive so far in preseason action. They have received extra playing time due to the surprising injury to Tyrone Calico. Unfortunately for those fantasy players in very deep leagues, there is little indication which of the three is highest on the depth chart. For Titans fans, however, it will be nice for McNair to have multiple options in the spread formations used so well in 2003.
This is the last edition of Four Downs: AFC South for 2005.
Friday: The final Four Downs for the AFC North.
9 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2005, 2:09pm by Chicago Scott