by Tom Gower
Houston Texans: Can the linebackers play the way they can on paper?
The Houston Texans aggressively attacked their biggest need in free agency, signing Johnathan Joseph to start at one cornerback position and Danieal Manning to play safety. With the two additions and the presence of Glover Quin, even if he is undergoing a position change from cornerback to free safety, the Texans seem to have three reliable starters in the secondary. If new defensive backs coach Vance Joseph can find another starter out of 2010 first-round pick Kareem Jackson, 2011 second-round pick Brandon Harris, and former Dolphins first-round pick Jason Allen, the Texans secondary could actually be good.
To go with the improved secondary, the Texans have answers, at least on paper, for the rest of the defense. Each linebacker position, however, has serious questions associated with it.
- Can Mario Williams make a successful transition from defensive end to outside linebacker?
- Has DeMeco Ryans fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury?
- Can Brian Cushing recover the form of his standout 2009 campaign?
- Can rookie second-round pick Brooks Reed or Connor Barwin (who missed virtually all of 2010 with an ankle injury), both former defensive ends, man the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Williams?
With enough “yes" answers, the Texans defense could improve enough for them to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Indianapolis Colts: Will the defense be improved?
In the previous installments in this series, we highlighted the Colts' aging and unproven core of backs and receivers around Peyton Manning. While Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are in the later stages of their careers, and Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, and Donald Brown have not yet shown they are reliable (or reliably healthy), the Colts' offense should still be good enough in 2011 to continue their string of playoff appearances.
What determines whether the Colts will improve on last year's first-round playoff exit is if the defense can improve on last year's finish of 24th in our defensive DVOA ratings, including 26th against the pass. They retained safety Melvin Bullitt and made rare forays into free agency to add linebacker Ernie Sims and defensive linemen Tommie Harris and Jamaal Anderson.
All three free agents are of questionable value, which is why the Colts could afford them in the first place. Sims and Anderson have never lived up to top-10 draft picks invested in them and Harris's ability has been sapped by injury. Still, if they play up to their potential, they will be useful players. If that happens, and the secondary is healthy -- particularly in the playoffs -- the Colts can again be Super Bowl contenders.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will the secondary be improved?
In 2008, the Jaguars ranked 29th in the league in our pass defense DVOA ratings, and they failed to add a quality starter in the secondary in free agency. In 2009 the Jaguars ranked 31st in the league in pass defense DVOA, and they failed to add a quality starter in the secondary in free agency. In 2010, the Jaguars ranked 30th in the league, and they finally added a quality starter in the secondary in free agency. Dawan Landry joins the Jaguars from the Baltimore Ravens, where he played, as he put it, whichever safety position Ed Reed didn't want to play.
Landry is a much-needed upgrade at safety, where he will probably play more of a free safety role next to Courtney Greene at strong safety. The Jaguars also added cornerback Drew Coleman from the New York Jets. Coleman will likely play the nickel, but the Jaguars needed a starting-caliber cornerback. 2010 starters Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox both return, but Mathis was one of the league's worst corners according to our game charting project and Cox was oft-targeted both before and after his early season benching. If Mathis misses time, as he did in 2007, 2008, and 2009, or Cox fails to improve in his third season, the Jaguars will be one of the league's worst pass defenses even with the addition of Landry. In that case, look for next year's "Plugging the Holes" to focus on the Jacksonville secondary as well..
Tennessee Titans: Can they rush the passer?
The Titans ended last season 13th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, our measure of pass rushing productivity, and 12th in the league in pass defense DVOA. With both statistics, however, it was a tale of two half-seasons. In the first half, the Titans got to the passer frequently, and the pass defense was among the best in the league. In the second half, the Titans got to the passer less frequently, and the pass defense was exploited with regularity.
A great deal of credit for the pass rush went to defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who intensively scouted how and where sacks occurred and trained his charges in an aggressive style designed to maximize pass pressure. Washburn and defensive end Jason Babin, who had 12.5 sacks in 2010, are now in Philadelphia, and the Titans need to find a new pass rush threat.
New defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's scheme seems to have the defensive linemen playing less aggressively, and it remains to be seen if any of the defensive linemen will be productive pass rushers in the new scheme. Many teams with less aggressive defensive line play get pressure from the back seven, but the Titans have struggled in the past to get pressure from non-linemen. Rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers and 2010 first-round pick defensive end Derrick Morgan, who's coming off a knee injury, are the most likely candidates, but some player must emerge as a pass rush threat or opposing passers will again find time to exploit a beatable secondary.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)