Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC South

Four Downs: AFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.)


26 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 6:08am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

I didn't know the Texans were going to use Mario Williams as linebacker. The Texans website lists him at the weak side; which seems odd to me, since he's 40 and 30 pounds heavier than Barwin and Reed respectively. (Reed's picture at the Texans' depth chart is hilarious by the way.)
Didn't the Texans play 3-4 before?

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

No, the Texans were a 4-3 before. I'm not really sure I see the wisdom in moving to a 3-4 because Williams is their best player and he seems like a prototypical 4-3 end to me.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

The Phillips 3-4 isn't actually much of a 3-4. Mario is going to be placed in the DeMarcus Ware role and asked to pillage quarterbacks.

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

A 290 pound DeMarcus Ware, able to get up a head of steam before contact with the LT. I don't know if it will be effective, but I think it will be fun to watch!

14 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

You put your best pass rusher on the weak side. Williams is the Texans' best pass rusher. It's pretty much that simple.

Incidentally, Lance Zierlein (who's a much better judge of these things than your average journalist) reports from Texans training camp than Barwin looks less dangerous than might be expected rushing the passer but much better than he would have thought setting the edge against the run. Barwin's currently practising with the 1s, Reed with the 2s.

And Kareem Jackson apparently still looks like a disaster area. He's practising opposite Joseph, but consensus is that if the CB battle is decided on merit, Jason Allen will be #2, possibly with Sherrick McManis (2010 5th rounder) as the nickelback.

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

If they want him to be able to pressure the quarterback, it will be much easier done from the weak side. Virtually every great sack-artist linebacker in modern history lined up on the weak side, regardless of his weight.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

I don't think Strahan was a linebacker.

The only OLB that was a dominant pass rusher from the strong side that I can come up with off the top of my head is Andre Tippett. I'm sure there's probably more.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

GB moved CM3 to the strong side ROLB last year after manning the weakside LOLB as a rookie, partly because they felt he was stronger against the run than the other OLB options, but also to put him opposite Cullen Jenkins (GB's best pass rushing DE from last year).

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Tom, did you watch every Bear game?

"reliable" to describe D Manning. WTF? He couldn't have been more awful playing safety.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

I did watch every Bear game, and I think you're farther off than Gower. Fine, Manning isn't top-grade at the position, but "couldn't have been more awful" is beyond hyperbole. People still hold the Super Bowl TD against him, but the Bears gave up very few long TD passes last year, and for the two that I can remember them giving up that were clearly cover-2 breakdowns, Major Wright was at FS (or whatever you call that position in the cover-2) and not Manning.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Yes, but he was tremendously reliable doing so. He was consistently awful every down, on either run or pass. That's much better than someone who shows signs of brilliance and then is awful.

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Alas, even though I'm a local, I did not watch every Bear game or close to it. I did, however, watch every Texans game at least once (multiple times if you count Short Cuts), so I saw an awful lot of Bernard Pollard and Eugene Wilson. Manning is not an elite safety, but that doesn't mean he's not a huge upgrade.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

D Manning looked good at safety last year. His first couple seasons at safety he made a ton of mistakes and I was constantly thinking "If only we had a healthy Mike Brown, he wouldn't have missed that tackle / blown that coverage" but last season that didn't happen anymore (and not just because healthy Mike Brown would now require a time machine as well as magical healing powers).

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Seems to me a big question for the Colts is whether Manning is healthy. I haven't followed Colts camp closely -- is he practicing yet?

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

There have been reports of him throwing, but no, he's not practicing, and still on the PUP list.

At this point, it seems unlikely he'll play in the preseason. Could be another rough start to the year (but if "rough" means starting 3-4 and then winning 9 straight games to finish the season like 2009, I'll take it).

21 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

As a Colts guy myself, I have to say that it's starting to get depressing just how much of the franchise runs on Manning. The Patriots could make the playoffs without Tom Brady, the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, and the Steelers might actually be better without Ben Roethlisberger...

But even if we had a competent backup (Nate Davis! Um, we'll see.), the Colts are not even a .500 team without Peyton Manning at quarterback. They're the Washington Redskins of 2010, Rex Grossman version. An aging deep threat, oft-injured TE, and some young but not terribly talented newcomers at receiver, no pass or run defense to speak of... the only difference would be that Washington has much younger pass rushers and an almost passable running game.

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

But even if we had a competent backup (Nate Davis! Um, we'll see.)

Apparently the Colts are done seeing. Davis was released today. For good or ill, I think Dan Orlovsky is going to be one man away from having his finger on the button. I don't follow the Colts all that closely, but I think he's probably the best backup Q they've had in many years.

Whether that is a good thing is another question.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

the Steelers might actually be better without Ben Roethlisberger.

No. They've made a point of having actual NFL quarterbacks like Batch and Leftwich as backups (which speaks to what you're saying about the Colts), but there's absolutely a dropoff when Ben is out.

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

It kinda depends on which QB magically replaces him. If it's Aaron Rodgers, then yeah, fine. If it's, well, any other human on the planet, then no.

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Sure, it must get really depressing worrying that if your HOF Quarterback (who has never missed a game) gets injured, you might win fewer than 12 games next season.

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

thanks for this very nice