How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
15 Feb 2011
by Tom Gower
The Texans were a terrible defensive team in 2010. They finished last in the league in pass defense DVOA at 36.8%. They gave up 24 or more points in 14 games, holding only the Rusty Smith-led Tennessee Titans and the Trent Edwards-led (and Maurice Jones-Drew-less) Jacksonville Jaguars below that threshold. The solution: out with defensive coordinator Frank Bush and the 4-3 defense, and in with Wade Phillips and the 3-4.
The Texans probably have the right parts on the defensive line to run Phillips' version of a 3-4, which places less of a premium on large space-eating defensive linemen. Their problem is that they may not have four linebackers who could start in the 3-4.
The projected starting linebackers include two players who ended the season on Injured Reserve, DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin. Ryans should stay in the middle as one of the inside linebackers, while Barwin will have to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. He looked like a capable pass rusher as a rookie in 2009 with 4.5 sacks, and he should do reasonably well. Brian Cushing will be another of the starters at linebacker, and he was much less impressive after his return from a season-opening suspension but still was not a bad player. His skills are better suited for an inside linebacker position next to Ryans, as he probably does not have enough burst to get around even right tackles. If Cushing does indeed move to the inside, the Texans need another outside linebacker. There is no good candidate on the roster for the role, so that is a position the Texans must address in free agency or the draft.
Once they find enough players to run their preferred defensive scheme, the Texans also need to fix their secondary. The best place to start is by finding a good free safety, something they have lacked in the nine years of their existence. Eugene Wilson started 13 games there this year but was not very good, and Troy Nolan does not appear to be the answer either. The Texans will also need to retain or replace strong safety Bernard Pollard, a capable run-stopper whose limitations in both man and zone coverage were revealed and frequently exploited in 2010. The Texans could also use a cornerback or two, but they will probably instead rely on new secondary coach Vance Joseph work on improving 2010 first-round pick Kareem Jackson, who had a poor rookie season.
The Texans have a couple moderately prominent potential free agents. As indicated above, strong safety Bernard Pollard will be a free agent and could be allowed to leave. The other key free agents are on offense, led by the NFL's leading rusher in 2010, Arian Foster. Foster is scheduled to be an exclusive rights free agent, so the Texans should not have to worry about losing him. They will still want to avoid the sort of extended holdout that that the Titans underwent with Chris Johnson last offseason.
The Texans have two more offensive starters who might be allowed to depart. Fullback Vonta Leach had a good 2010 after a mediocre 2009, but he is 29 and may be let go. Tight end Owen Daniels had a slow recovery after a season-ending injury in 2009 and only rarely flashed the vertical explosiveness that made him fifth in DVOA among tight ends in 2009. Third wideout Jacoby Jones is also a free agent, and the Texans may let him go elsewhere.
On defense, they'll need to pick up linebackers, linebackers, corners, and safeties. Nnamdi Asomugha would certainly help shore up the secondary. Eric Weddle would fill the need at safety. If any of Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley, or David Harris ends up as a free agent, the Texans should take a long look at him. While Wade Phillips' 3-4 puts less of a premium on large space-eating lineman, the Texans could still look to add a nose tackle like Shaun Rogers or Aubrayo Franklin.
The Colts' biggest need is obviously to re-sign Peyton Manning, who is not under contract for the 2011 season. They will use the franchise tag on him, if available, if they cannot agree on the terms of a new contract. Everything the Colts do is based on his unique skills, and the team falls apart without him.
When the Colts and Manning do agree on a new deal, the Colts need to figure out who will be playing around and in front of him. Reggie Wayne had another good year in 2010 but is 32 years old. When Marvin Harrison was 32, Wayne was around to help him carry the load. It's not clear who might play that role for Wayne. Anthony Gonzalez seemed like he might be that player when the Colts made him a first-round pick in 2007, but has not been able to stay healthy, appearing in only three games in the last two seasons. Pierre Garcon started opposite Wayne, but put up below-average numbers and appears better suited as a complementary player. Like Gonzalez, third wideout Austin Collie has serious injury issues after suffering multiple concussions in 2010.
The second most important Colts' pass-catcher of recent years has been tight end Dallas Clark, who turns 32 in June and ended 2010 on Injured Reserve. Few tight ends are productive long into their 30s, and his prominence has been partly a result of his ability to stretch seams, which age will likely sap. Jacob Tamme was productive in Clark's absence, but he is not as proficient a seam-stretcher or blocker as a younger Clark.
Of course, Tamme's mediocre blocking ability fits in well with the Colts' offensive line. A year after the line ranked 26th in Adjusted Line Yards and Bill Polian singled the unit out after the Super Bowl los, the Colts failed to address the unit in free agency or early in the draft and once again ranked 26th in Adjusted Line Yards. The most obvious weakness is Charlie Johnson at left tackle, but could probably use an upgrade at every offensive line position as even mainstay center Jeff Saturday turns 36 in June.
Unless the Texans are able to vastly improve their defense, the Colts have the inside track at winning what looks like another weak AFC South in 2011. But if they are to win another Super Bowl, Peyton Manning, like John Elway late in his career, needs an infusion of talented youth on offense.
Beyond Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai is the biggest potential free agent. He is probably most valuable with and to the Colts, so he seems like a good candidate to return. The Colts may keep Adam Vinatieri for another year, as he was a better distance kicker in 2010 than he had been for several years, and punter Pat McAfee handles kickoffs. On defense, linebacker Clint Session is the only big name.
Potential tampering aside, owner Jim Irsay tweeted the Colts weren't interested in Asomugha and were committed to developing through the draft. If the Colts do go after somebody in free agency, it would probably be an offensive lineman. Logan Mankins is the highest profile name and draws most of the attention, but Redskins tackle Jammal Brown or Packers guard Daryn Colledge could also be targets.
In 2009, the Jaguars finished next to last in the NFL in pass defense with a DVOA of 39.8%, and we highlighted their need for upgrades at defensive back last offseason. The Jaguars responded by adding defensive end Aaron Kampman with their big free-agent move, then drafting defensive linemen with their first four picks.
The pass rush actually did improve, as the Jaguars jumped from 14 to 26 sacks and from next to last in Adjusted Sack Rate to 22nd. The pass defense as a whole also improved, but only from 31st in the league to 30th.
The Jaguars' biggest move in the secondary last offseason was trading first-round bust safety Reggie Nelson to the Cincinnati Bengals for cornerback David Jones, then inserting Jones into the starting lineup. Jones started five games and yielded an average of 12.2 yards per play when he was in coverage before being relegated to the bench. For a better idea of just how bad that was, only three other corners gave up more than 10 yards per play, and passes completed against holes in zone coverage only netted 11.6 yards per play.
Unfortunately for the Jaguars, the starter opposite Jones, Rashean Mathis, was another member of that elite quartet of corners that gave up at least 10 yards per play. Mathis turns 31 in August, and the Jaguars should not count on him in 2011 to play as well as he did in 2010 -- or to be healthy for all 16 games, as he was for the first time since 2006. Jones's replacement, Derek Cox, wasn't as bad, but Jones's insertion in the starting lineup in the first place was a sign of the Jaguars' displeasure with Cox's lack of development.
Good safety play would undoubtedly help the Jaguars corners perform at a higher level, but unfortunately even competent safety play was at a premium in Jacksonville in 2010. Converted (failed) cornerback Don Carey was the primary starter at free safety and was neither very good in coverage nor a proficient tackler. Strong safety Courtney Greene was also not very good at tackling, primarily because he did not take very good angles to the ball. The Jaguars were desperate enough to give veteran Sean Considine five more starts at safety to help show why the Eagles were so willing to part ways with him. General manager Gene Smith simply must upgrade the Jaguars' personnel in the secondary, or they will be one of the league's most porous pass defenses once again in 2011.
Marcedes Lewis had another excellent year in 2010 and is one of the league's most complete tight ends. The Jaguars will probably give him the franchise tag if they cannot agree to a new deal in time. Wideout Mike Sims-Walker could also be a free agent, and the Jaguars will look to retain him at a reasonable price. Backup quarterbacks Trent Edwards and Luke McCown are both free agents.
On defense, the biggest free agents are starting linebackers Kirk Morrison and Justin Durant. Morrison was a minor disappointment after being acquired from the Raiders, while Durant has had an up and down career.
Add the Jaguars to the list of teams who could be interested in Asomugha and Weddle. They will likely be conservative in free agency, and their targets will depend on who departs. If Sims-Walker leaves, a player like Mark Clayton could be a target. If both Edwards and McCown leave, expect them to add a veteran quarterback. If Morrison and Durant leave, linebacker is another position they could address. Either Barrett Ruud or Paul Posluszny could be a good fit in the middle.
For the first time since the run-up to the 1994 season, the Tennessee Titans will go through an offseason with someone other than Jeff Fisher at head coach. In the past 15 years, Fisher developed an identity as a defensive-minded head coach who preferred to move the ball on the ground and play tough, physical football. Fisher is now gone, replaced by offensive line coach and Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Munchak. With that kind of internal replacement, continuity seemed to be in order, only for Munchak to quickly fire offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger.
With defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil already fired, Munchak has a chance to put his stamp on the team. Moving directly from position coach to head coach, he has not defined his style as a coordinator and exactly what sort of offense or defense he wants to run is largely a mystery. Who he hires to fill the coordinator positions should help answer those questions -- and should help dictate what kind of personnel changes the Titans need to make this offseason.
The biggest known personnel change will be at quarterback, where the team announced in early January Vince Young would not be brought back for the final year of his contract. Jeff Fisher may have been cast as the primary antagonist in Young's battle for NFL respect, but he was not the only one, and Munchak's hire does not mean Young will be back. That leaves 2010 sixth-round draft choice Rusty Smith as the only quarterback under contract.
Smith was a pet project of Heimerdinger, and his poor performance in his only 2010 start, a shutout loss to the Texans, makes it unlikely a new offensive coordinator would take a similar shine to him. Kerry Collins is a free agent, and unless the Titans will run a similar offensive scheme to Heimerdinger's, the rationale for bringing him back seems to be gone.
The Titans could choose to go in a number of different directions, adding a possible longer-term option like Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton, trying to win in the short run with a veteran quarterback like Carson Palmer or Donovan McNabb, or using the highest pick they've had since taking Young third overall in 2006 on a promising rookie. Whichever directions Munchak chooses to go, at offensive and defensive coordinator and in acquiring a quarterback, he must be sure to choose as wisely: Wrong choices could lead him to the unemployment line, and right choices could lead to another long-tenured head coach for the Titans franchise.
We know quarterback Vince Young will be gone, even though he's not strictly a free agent. Quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Chris Simms are also doubtful to return. Randy Moss is out of contract and won't be re-signed. Tight end Bo Scaife is a long shot to get another contract. Left guard Leroy Harris had a disappointing year and may not be brought back.
On defense, defensive end Jason Babin's return became less likely with the departure of defensive line coach Jim Washburn, and the Titans probably will not use the franchise tag on him. The team has not recently put a premium on middle linebacker, so Stephen Tulloch may not be retained.
Beyond quarterback, linebacker and defensive end may be the biggest positions of need, especially if Tulloch and Babin are not brought back. Chad Greenway would fill the need at outside linebacker, while Barrett Ruud would fit in the middle. At defensive end, Mathias Kiwanuka or Charles Johnson may be attractive targets. The Titans may also look to improve the interior offensive line.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.
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