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11 Feb 2009

Four Downs: AFC South

by Doug Farrar

Houston Texans

Why can't the Texans turn stats into wins?

Statistically speaking, few teams produced more empty calories in 2008 than the Texans. Gary Kubiak's team finished third in total yards gained (6,113) but 17th in points scored (366). When you factor in the defense, the team finished eighth in yardage differential (plus-728) but 21st in point differential (minus-28). The Texans amassed 340 first downs to the 300 they allowed, and it wasn't as if their quarterbacks were losing it in the red zone -- combined, Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels threw 15 of their 21 touchdowns and only four of their 20 interceptions inside the opposing 20-yard line.

So, why the discrepancy? Turnovers in fact did kill them -- the Texans finished 29th in turnover differential (minus-10), and the quarterbacks lost six fumbles. They finished 11th in offensive DVOA, which tells us that all that sound and fury signified less than it should have. And despite those positive stats from Schaub and Rosenfels, the overall body of work was less than spectacular -- the Texans ranked 24th in red zone passing DVOA and 27th in offensive red zone DVOA overall. In fact, the closer Houston got to the opposing goal line, the worse its offense looked:


Texans' Offense by Field Position
Zone Off. DVOA NFL Rank
Deep (own 1-19) 34.50% 3
Back (own 20-39) 26.80% 3
Mid (own 40-opp. 40) 10.80% 14
Front (opp. 39-21) 8.90% 15
Red Zone (opp. 20-1) -12.90% 27

The Texans have finished 8-8 in each of their past two seasons. They are assembling the talent necessary to become a playoff team, but their next step will be to trade raw numbers for real and consistent efficiency.

Who Could Leave?

Two have already left -- the team recently cut linebacker Morlon Greenwood and running back Ahman Green. With the cap savings they'll pocket with those moves ($8.8 million, according to NFL.com's Adam Schefter), Job One will be to re-sign cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson won't get Asante Samuel of DeAngelo Hall (snicker) money, but the Texans will have to pony up to keep their secondary standout. Also on the list to re-sign is free safety Eugene Wilson. After a great deal of turnover in the defensive backfield last season, the Texans are looking for some stability.

Who Could They Sign?

Acquiring ancient Raiders receiver/position coach Fred Biletnikoff might be a good idea; perhaps Biletnikoff's familiarity with stickum could solve Houston's turnover woes. After firing their defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and secondary coach in the offseason, the Texans have made clear where the improvements need to be. More will be expected of the defensive end position opposite Mario Williams and from the nose tackle spot; Anthony Weaver and Travis Johnson, respectively, could be on the hot seat. Houston ranked 30th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards last season, and a rotational earth-mover like Grady Jackson would be a sensible idea. Don't expect the team to go crazy in free agency, though; the agenda seems to be about building from within.

Indianapolis Colts

How did Indy survive the loss of Bob Sanders?

In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl despite one of the worst regular-season run defenses in NFL history. Indy's 5.33 yards allowed per attempt was the worst average since the 1961 Minnesota Vikings allowed 5.41. The Vikings were an expansion team that season, hardly championship contenders. The Colts turned it around in the postseason to an astonishing degree, allowing only 4.1 yards per carry and winning four straight postseason games to take it all. One of the primary reasons for the defensive turnaround was the return of safety Bob Sanders, the superior run defender who missed 12 regular season games due to a knee injury. As the eighth man in the box in the Colts' zone defense, Sanders became an expert at shutting down running plays as the (literal) last line of defense. He parlayed this ability (and others) into a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007, but the Colts knew they had to get some backup in case Sanders got hurt again.

In 2007, the Colts signed Texas A&M defensive back Melvin Bullitt as an undrafted free agent. Bullitt saw most of his time as a special-teamer in his rookie season, although his 10 tackles in the regular-season finale against the Titans were a bit of foreshadowing. When Sanders got hurt again in 2008, missing 10 games with various injuries, it was Bullitt who filled in and stepped up. In 2008, Bullitt made his average tackle on run plays just 4.2 yards from the line of scrimmage. Only five safeties made their average run tackle after a shorter gain. Even without Sanders for most of the season, the Colts allowed only 4.3 yards per carry with Bullitt in his spot.

Who Could Leave?

Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop with Marvin Harrison. The veteran receiver finished 64th in DYAR and the Colts could gain $6 million in cap room if they cut him. Team president Bill Polian has said that a draft priority will be another receiver, because "Marvin's not going to play forever." Unless he agrees to a substantial pay cut, Blue Horseshoe will not love Harrison in 2009. Center Jeff Saturday and cornerback Kelvin Hayden are the big free agent names on Indy's roster. Hayden might be expendable at the right price, but Saturday isn't going anywhere just yet. Rookie Jamey Richard impressed as an injury sub, but this is not the time to be simplifying the game plan for a kid in the middle.

Who Could They Sign?

Polian has mentioned the salary cap rules this season as a deterrent to any big moves. Still, there may be shakeups on the defensive line; free agent Darrell Reid was recently arrested for disorderly conduct. Don't expect much here. The Colts will continue to build through the draft.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Why did the Jags fail to live up to expectations?

After an 11-5 season in 2007, many pundits saw the Jaguars as a potential Super Bowl candidate in 2008. However, a 5-11 reversal of fortune had those same observers shaking their heads and led to the resignation of vice president of player personnel James Harris. For the answer to what stopped the Jags before they started, we only have to look at their offensive and defensive lines, which were decimated by injuries and ineffectiveness.

Jacksonville lost starting guards Vince Manuwai and Mo Williams in the first game of the season, and quarterback David Garrard saw his game suffer. The Jaguars gave up 42 sacks after allowing 31 the previous season. With less time to get passes to his targets, Garrard threw 13 interceptions after tossing only three the year before. Jacksonville's yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.6 from 4.2, and the power so central to that running game seemed distinctly absent from the game plan.

On defense, the ability to pressure quarterbacks was a problem. Jacksonville's front seven dropped to 15th in adjusted sack rate, which gives sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down and distance. The Jaguars were 10th in this category in 2007. Veteran end Paul Spicer was stout against the run and pass, but rookie Derrick Harvey was a disappointment after holding out in training camp, and tackles John Henderson and Rob Meier did not hold the point like they did in previous seasons. Reggie Hayward led the team in sacks (4.5), quarterback hits (8) and quarterback hurries (6), but none of those totals were elite.

Gene Smith, who replaced Harris, has a big job ahead of him. Teams are successfully built from the lines out, and the Jaguars have several pressing needs to fill before they can challenge once again for a playoff spot.

Who Could Leave?

While center Brad Meester joined Manuwai and Williams in the injury parade last year, left tackle (and free agent) Khalif Barnes' issue was simply poor play. Right tackle Tony Pashos didn't blow anyone away, either, especially when he racked up four holding penalties against the Vikings in Week 12. For the second straight year, the draft is deep in tackles and Pashos could be a casualty. If Hayward wants to stick around, he'll probably have to take a pay cut. Reggie Williams is an unrestricted free agent, and while the Jags will likely advise the first-round bust to avoid letting the door hit him in the ass on the way out, a receiver-gullible team like the Seahawks or Cowboys might take a flyer on him.

EDIT: A few hours after this article was published, ESPN.com's John Clayton reported that the Jaguars released receiver Jerry Porter and cornerback Drayton Florence.

Who Could They Sign?

Jacksonville is singing the small-market blues, but they have to get something going at receiver. Porter was a number-one target in salary only. Matt Jones is a possession receiver (har!) and the Dennis Northcutt/Troy Williamson duo isn't going to cause nightmares for any defensive coordinators. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is probably out of the question; if the team lives up to its history, they'll probably sign Ashley Lelie or Koren Robinson and hope for the best.

Tennessee Titans

Will Vince Young figure it out?

The in-season soap opera of Vince Young and the improbable career resurgence of Kerry Collins aside, the Titans have some thinking to do about Young's future. And Young's primary obstacle to a productive NFL career might not be whatever physical and/or mental issues that might or might not have affected him in 2008. The main bump in the road could be the fact that Young has never really graduated from the spread offense he ran at Texas.

Many college quarterbacks succeed in the shotgun-heavy spread, in which multiple-receiver sets and wide blocking lanes extend defenses to their breaking point. Most quarterbacks, however, often find themselves tripped up by the speed and complexity of the NFL. It's not an individual indictment of Young; from Andre Ware to Alex Smith, shotgun-option quarterbacks in many different systems have found the NFL tough to navigate.

The stats bear it out. In 2006, his rookie season, Young put up a DVOA of 21.9% out of the shotgun but -6.9% overall. In 2007, his DVOA was 3.8% in 209 shotgun snaps and -8.4%overall. In 2007, Young rolled out of the pocket nearly one in every five plays, which was almost twice the league average.

The Titans have met Young halfway on his transition to the NFL style of play, and it will be up to Young to reciprocate if he's to make the unlikely jump back to his former status as "The Franchise."

Who Could Leave?

Albert Haynesworth is the 320-pound elephant in the living room; the best defensive tackle in the business hit the escalators that will prevent the Titans from franchising him, and he's going to break the bank somewhere. An initial offer was reportedly way out of the ballpark, and though Haynesworth has made all the right sounds about wanting to stay in Tennessee, there are enough teams with interior defensive needs and oodles of cap space to make this the primary non-Favre story of the offseason. Kerry Collins is also a free agent, but the smart money (which is what the Titans have) says he'll be back. Receivers Justin McCareins and Brandon Jones are both free agents, and Jones may be the only one returning.

Who Could They Sign?

Justin Gage finished 34th in DYAR last year, the highest ranking of any Titans receiver. The Titans need a little help here; perhaps a veteran like Bobby Engram would fit the bill. The interesting name is Chris Simms, another free agent, who the Titans saw as an under-the-radar project last year while Collins was usurping Young. If Young isn't the future, who's to say that Simms might not be?

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 11 Feb 2009

17 comments, Last at 17 Feb 2009, 12:50pm by MJK

Comments

1
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 02/11/2009 - 7:16pm

The Texans are potentially big winners in the whole CBA apocalypse malarky, in the sense that what would otherwise be an offseason in which four crucial starters all had to get new deals (Daniels is an RFA and Ryans and Walter both have only a single year remaining on their current contracts), they only have to deal with two, as restricted free agency will apply to players up to their 6th year in the league in the uncapped season, enabling the team to retain two Pro Bowl calibre performers well into their prime on preposterously small contracts. I'm guessing Denver are in a similarly happy situation, thanks to their equally great 2006 draft class.

2
by Key19 :: Wed, 02/11/2009 - 7:33pm

I haven't followed the Jags much, but isn't Fred Taylor possibly on the way out?

The question is: Who finishes first and last in the division next year? The Texans are quickly becoming what the Cardinals were every year until now (perennial preseason sleepers who never deliver). Will they finally break out next season like the Cards did? Colts should be fine... Jags seem ready to rebound if they can finally get healthy again. Titans were good this year, but I think if they lose Haynesworth they could end up on the bottom. This seems like it's going to be a very competitive Division. Looking forward to see how they all fare in 09.

3
by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 02/11/2009 - 9:23pm

Not sure about Taylor, but John Clayton reports that the Jags have released Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence.

8
by dryheat (not verified) :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 9:39am

Taylor's almost certainly gone...which will make things interesting. Either Greg Jones, Chauncey Washington, or a FA signing/draftee is going to have to pick up the slack, or we're going to see how indestructable Pocket Hercules really is without a 1B complement.

4
by MJK :: Wed, 02/11/2009 - 9:39pm

Short summary of this article:

Why did the Texans kind of suck?
Because they turn it over a lot and such in the red zone.

Why did the Jags really suck?
Because their O-line got hurt and their D-line got old.

Why didn't the Colts suck?
Because once again, they figured out a way to make a little-regarded young DB play way better than he had any business playing.

Why did the Titans really not suck?
Sorry, we're not going to answer that and instead talk about Vince Young.

All kidding, aside, nice article. I love 4 downs...it gets me through the long offseason. I'm seriously starting to believe that next year this division could be a four team race. Wouldn't be surprised if the Colts take a minor step back, especially with Dungy leaving. I think Tennessee's dominance was short lived...they'll probably be a good team but not a great one next year. Houston has been assembling the pieces and could pull off an Arizona next year. And I can't figure Jax out...if injuries on the O-line really were to blame for their offensive struggles this year, they should improve next year, right?

5
by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 02/11/2009 - 9:52pm

KUBIAK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6
by starzero :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 9:30am

i don't think houston has the qb for a super bowl run. they have two mediocre qbs, one injury-prone the other mistake-prone. their running game will only be good if slaton stays good. i'm convinced the texan defense should be better than it is.

the colts need to recover their running game, which means addai has to get healthy and the o-line has to solidify. the colts d is slightly better than average, and i expect it to stay that way. improving the receiving corps is probably a necessity as the good players age, but what they really need is special teams help. someone who can stop runbacks behind the twenty would be nice. i wouldn't worry about the coaching change.

i'd expect the titans to regress this year. they'll have the defense, but without more and better receivers their offense isn't going to maintain last year's pace. they'll challenge for division champ with their running game, but i think it's still the colts' to lose.

i don't know what's wrong with the jaguars. they seem to be a mix of mediocrity and underachievement. if they're healthy this year maybe they'll be ok, but i don't think garrard is as good as people think or his numbers show. i think he's in trouble again this year.

this division should be a powerhouse. it wouldn't surprise me if every team split their games and beat all their non-division opponents. that would make everyone 13-3, right? the team that sweeps the others wins the division.

9
by Anonymous Coward (not verified) :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 10:56am

this division should be a powerhouse. it wouldn't surprise me if every team split their games and beat all their non-division opponents. that would make everyone 13-3, right? the team that sweeps the others wins the division.

This would be beyond surprising to me.

11
by Kulko :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 12:02pm

this division should be a powerhouse. it wouldn't surprise me if every team split their games and beat all their non-division opponents. that would make everyone 13-3, right? the team that sweeps the others wins the division.

Well this is the year of AFCS vs AFCE and unless Brady is going much worse than expected I would be very surprised by the Pats going 0-4 against the AFCS. And thats not talking about TEN having to play PIT and SD.

All in all its very unlikely for 1 team to beat all its OOD opponents and its virtually impossible to happen for 4 teams, even if they were indeed favored oin each of their contests. OTOH that would mean a 13-3 team would miss the playoffs, which should lead to a lot of new funny discussions.

7
by Mr Shush :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 9:31am

The Texans defense is still missing a lot of pieces. There are stars in place (Williams, Ryans) and some good young players (Diles, Adibi, Bennett if he can bounce back to something like his 2007 form), but there are gaping holes at DT (two of them, if Okoye doesn't show some improvement), SDE and both safety slots. The offense will probably continue to improve slightly, assuming Schaub and Johnson can stay healthy, and will be a top ten unit but not a truly elite one. The defense will benefit from the removal of the appallingly useless Richard Smith as co-ordinator, but Frank Bush, his replacement, is comparatively inexperienced: he can hardly be worse, but there's no guarantee he'll be all that much better. Robinson is not really worth franchise CB money, but because his post-injury body of work is so small it's unlikely he and the team will see eye-to-eye on a long term deal. The secondary can't afford to lose his leadership, so he probably will be tagged. Offseason moves and the maturation or otherwise of Okoye will determine exactly where in the bottom half of the DVOA rankings the defense ends up in 2009. I can see the Texans competing for a wild card birth, but they're highly unlikely to take such a competitive division. Remember, Arizona plays in the NFC West.

10
by woefully inappropriate (not verified) :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 11:52am

I'll take a shot at the reason the Jags underperformed: The loss of their backup utility OL before the season didn't leave them a leg to stand on.

13
by The Anti-Dave (not verified) :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 1:57pm

Classless doesn't even begin to cover it.

12
by Bionicman (not verified) :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 1:43pm

Bill Polian admitted last year that Saturday probably wouldn't return (and Manning acknowledged the same in an interview before the Pro Bowl). Polian also described Hayden with the same terms he used for Sanders, Freeney, and Clark before they got their long term contracts, and Colts fans expect him to get a deal done.

14
by Purds :: Thu, 02/12/2009 - 6:48pm

As much as I'd like to think the Colts will keep steaming away in the regular season, I can't imagine that the new coach and coordinator will win without a hiccup, especially in this division, which is strong.

15
by Bobman :: Mon, 02/16/2009 - 3:59am

For me, it's pretty simple and not too far off the article.

Texans: A lot of talent, but it's scattered--there seems to be no single unit that can take over a game, making it tough to rely solely on Andre Johnson's titanic abilities, or Ryans or Williams on D. A lot of potential and not patsies in any game, but...8 wins, 10 max.

Titans: Regression. They had a lot of things work out really well for them this year (Young's injury among them). Minus Haynesworth (Bironas is a tempting FA, no?) and minus a little luck, they win... 8-10.

Jags: Whew, their 2008 regression was clear to me a year ago but not for the reasons it happened. To review, the OL/DL injuries are not likely to repeat in 09, so they improve there. No Fred Taylor is likely to hurt them (loss of leadership and too much workload on MJD). Garrard was actually better in 08 than I expected with all the OL injuries--so he's likely to improve along with the line. But the coaching staff lost the team this year and I am not sure it can be recovered. Del Rio would scare me if I were a Jags fan. 8-9 wins.

Colts: There is no way they could be unluckier than 2008--lost 2 of their top 3 DTs forever in August, their QB could not walk most of the summer, and the OL had a rash of injuries early, Sanders sat out a lot and they lost their MLB for the playoff game where Antonio Gates coincidentally had a good game. Sheesh! If their OL is crushed by injuries again, there will be a lot of folks sticking their heads in ovens in Indy... let's hope they are electric ovens. Assuming the OL improves (it should whether Saturday stays or not--2007's 3 rookies got a lot of seasoning), the O should improve overall. Addai and Rhodes will do better with a consistent line (and improved health) and Manning should have a better season than his MVP campaign (opening up running lanes further), which is nice--no more 6 weeks of "preseason" play in Sept and Oct. Plus actual stretch plays once more. If 88 leaves, then Dallas Clark ends up being called a WR once more here--88 will be missed, but it won't show up too much in the box scores. The ST will never be great, but can hardly do worse statistically (they covered well for a Colts team in 08 but had no return game). Assuming ST is mired in its own rut and stays about the same (the new coach can only help), that leaves the unsettled D with a new DC: The DEs showed why it's one of the best DLs with their Pro Bowl (3 sacks, 2 strips). Give them a competent 300 lb DT and they are suddenly fearsome. The LBs always seem to produce just well enough (when Brackett is in the game), and the back four will feature 2.5 good safeties and at least one good CB... maybe 2. Pretty good talent for a fast but undersized D. New DC is not an unknown but a seasoned vet with a good track record. So O better, ST could well be better, and D probably no worse plus an easier sked means a general improvement on an improbable 12-4 season. Without an unusual rash of injuries, or a DT joining Spinal Tap, it's another 12 win season.

16
by tuluse :: Mon, 02/16/2009 - 6:33pm

It must be nice having a HOF QB in his prime.

17
by MJK :: Tue, 02/17/2009 - 12:50pm

There is no way they could be unluckier than 2008

I don't know...some LB could have slammed into the side of Peyton Manning's recovering knee at the end of the first quarter in week 1, ending his season...