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?
11 May 2011
by Tom Gower
The Texans used the 2011 Draft to attack their most obvious pressing need for the coming season, namely a lack of defensive players that fit new coach Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed may not both start immediately, but should improve the pass rush immediately.
That added pass rush will be particularly important to the Texans, as spending their first two picks on front-seven players meant they couldn't upgrade the seconday, where the Texans needed at least two new starters. The need was particularly acute at safety -- 2010 starters Bernard Pollard and Eugene Wilson both played poorly and are not expected to return.
The Texans did add to their cornerback depth in the draft, trading up to select Brandon Harris in the second round. If they plan to start Harris, as defensive backs coach Vance Joseph suggested, they could move cornerback Glover Quin to safety. Quin was the only starter in the secondary in 2010 who was not below average, and moving him to safety could weaken the cornerbacks without greatly improving the safety play. But with the alternatives at safety including Troy Nolan, who was mediocre at best in limited work in 2010, and fifth-round selection Shiloh Keo, the Texans may have to run that risk.
The Indianapolis Colts have had a mediocre offensive line in the past several years. From 2003 through 2007, the Colts were among the best in the league in two stats: Adjusted Sack Rate and Adjusted Line Yards. Since then, the Adjusted Sack Rate has remained excellent, thanks to Peyton Manning's pocket presence and anticipation, but the Colts have not ranked higher than 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards in the past three seasons.
After whiffing on picking Tony Ugoh to be Tarik Glenn's replacement at left tackle in 2007, the Colts made do with Charlie Johnson, while a declining Ryan Diem continued to hold down the right tackle spot. First-round pick Anthony Castonzo and second-round selection Ben Ijalana should start immediately, with Costanzo at left tackle and Ijalana and Johnson playing guard and right tackle in some combination.
It is difficult to begrudge the Colts for working to improve the weakest part of their offense, but Manning's incredible career has been aided greatly by playing with an impressive collection of skill-position talent around him. With Reggie Wayne declining, the Colts need another standout to step up the way Wayne did when Marvin Harrison aged. Joseph Addai hasn't been as productive as Edgerrin James, but he has been a valuable back for what the Colts offense requires. Bill Polian tried to address this need by selecting wideout Anthony Gonzalez and running back Donald Brown in the first round in 2007 and 2009 respectively, but each has been a disappointment. The Colts must hope the offensive line is improved enough to cover these skill position deficiencies.
Make no mistake, Blaine Gabbert was a very good pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars. David Garrard is 33 years old and has ranked 23rd and 24th in passing DVOA in the last two seasons. Without an elite supporting cast, he won't be more than a league-average starter, and may soon reach the point where he can't even be that. Gabbert will not have to start immediately, but as soon as he is ready, the Jaguars can cut ties with Garrard and insert Gabbert.
At some point, though, general manager Gene Smith must address the secondary for the Jaguars to return to the playoffs. The Jaguars ranked 30th in the league in pass defense DVOA in 2010. This was a slight upgrade from 2009, when they ranked 31st, but a slight downgrade from 2008 when they ranked 29th. It is no coincidence the last time the Jaguars made the playoffs they ranked ninth in pass defense DVOA. In the four drafts since then, the Jaguars have spent only one pick in the first three rounds on a defensive back, drafting corner Derek Cox in the third round of 2009 (which also cost them their 2010 second-round pick).
The Jaguars are hoping fourth-round safety Chris Prosinski will be ready to compete for a starting job and fifth-round cornerback Rod Issac can play nickelback. Both may happen, but that speaks more to the competition they face for those jobs than the normal expected production from fourth- and fifth-round rookie defensive backs. Neither player is likely to lead the Jaguars' pass defense to where it needs to be for a playoff berth.
The Titans' top three draft picks are the sign of a franchise in a state of transition. In the first round they picked Jake Locker, quarterback of the future. They selected in the second linebacker Akeem Ayers, who projects as a strongside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, a position the Titans' defense has not truly featured for the better part of a decade. In the third round, the Titans drafted defensive tackle Jurrell Casey even though they are returning their top four defensive tackles from a year ago.
What still isn't clear is what exactly the Titans will look like offensively or defensively in 2011. General manager Mike Reinfeldt indicated the Titans will bring in a veteran quarterback and not thrust Locker into the starting job right away. Locker improved in his last two years at Washington and looked good in the run-up to the draft, but he is not accurate or experienced enough as a passer to be a productive starter as a rookie. Most of the offensive personnel around the quarterback will be the same as it was in 2010, but the most effective part of the Titans' 2010 offense was downfield passing -- no other team threw a higher percentage of passes 21-30 yards downfield, and no other team had more success on such passes. The Titans will no longer have a quarterback who excels on these throws the way Vince Young did.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has said he plans to have the defense show more multiple looks than the standard 4-3 base that the Titans have used. The problem, though, is the Titans pass defense was only good when the defensive line provided pressure, and that pressure came primarily from the ends playing aggressively, a practice Gray has already indicated he plans to discontinue. Gray must be find a way for the defense to apply pressure, or an average secondary will be exploited by opposing passers the same way it was in the second half of 2010.
A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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