NFL Season Preview -- AFC South

Bill Dungsroman 9/10/2004  

Houston Texans

Lightning struck once with head coach Dom Capers when he was at the helm in Carolina, getting them to the playoffs in their second season. It was by that virtue alone that landed him his job in Houston. It ain’t striking again; Capers needs to be shit-canned. This team has slowly accrued talent since its inception, and now it’s in pretty good shape. It looks as good on paper as a lot of teams, many who have had better records – and that’s the problem. The Texans must challenge for a playoff spot, or Capers should be removed as head coach. I mean, 31st in both offense and defense last season? What does that tell you? QB David Carr has the ability to be one of the best QBs in the league. He should be lighting up scoreboards, defenses, and Sportscenter highlight reels alike.  His arm is a cannon, there is no throw he cannot make, he’s obviously tough and surprisingly mobile. He’s had to be mobile, his line has sucked forever. Coming into this season though, Carr finally has a line that might give him and the Texans a fighting chance. C Steve McKinney is very athletic, RG Zach Weigart is coming off one of his best seasons, LG Chester Pitts has been moved from LT to better use his size (and surprising quickness), LT Seth Ward has shown rapid development into a starter, and RT free agent addition Todd Wade is 6’8” and 317 pounds and simply owns the right side. With a QB like Carr, you simply must have a vertical passing game. If WR Andre Davis had hands like Marvin Harrison – Hell, even Rodney Harrison – he’d be a Pro Bowler. He had a pretty good rookie season last year anyway, and he has the speed and size to create serious match-up problems in any spot on the field. Nobody likes tackling him when he’s headed downfield at top speed. Corey Bradford is a seriously underrated #2 WR – his speed is also respectable, and he thrives off slants. Jabar Gaffney shows up big on third downs, a must for the #3 WR. Expect a heavy dose of three-TE sets this year as Capers looks for new ways to move the ball. RB Domanick Davis was drafted last year to be a KR but the silly motherfucker put up over 1000 yards in 10 games, so to Hell with shagging kickoffs. Davis has excellent vision and cutback ability and he’s hard runner. They need to improve their running schemes so that defenses will respect him – and the Texans’ running game – more.

Like all Dom Capers’ defenses, the Texans run the 3-4 primarily. As such, they need a great NT to spearhead it. If Seth Payne is fully recovered from his knee problems, he’s the guy – against the run, anyway. On passing downs, the Texans aren’t sure yet what they’re going to do. I’m expecting the DEs to slide inside and have the OLBs come up to set like ends. Fortunately, DEs Gary Walker and Robaire Smith are solid and better yet, Walker is a great inside pass rusher. Smith needs to adjust to the new system however (he was on the Titans last season), and it’s not all that easy to go to a pure 3-4. He has never really been known for his pass-rushing ability at any rate. First-round pick OLB Jason Babin has the skill to be effective in both pass rushing and run defense. His presence allows Kailee Wong to move to the right side where he’ll primarily rush the passer. Controlling the action inside is Jamie Sharper, who led the league in tackles last season and Jay Foreman, who doesn’t exactly suck either. The depth is quite good at LB, a must in the 3-4. Marcus Coleman moves to FS from CB with the drafting of first-round pick Dunta Robinson, and he has the instincts and ball skills to handle it. SS Eric Brown is a run stuffer (rather than pass rusher) but that fits the Texans’ schemes. Marlon McCree started 11 games last year, and he’ll back up Coleman, so there’s some good depth at safety. Although CB Robinson has the speed and ability to be a shut-down corner, rookies at CB always make me nervous. But, Aaron Glenn and Kenny Wright are finally healthy and both have earned Pro Bowl spots in the past. Plus, Demarcus “Worst Surname Ever” Faggins has great coverage skills, so I expect Robinson to have some help out there. Still, he’ll get worked.

As much as I like the Texans’ roster this year, I’m no fan of Capers as a head coach. The guy is supposed to be a defensive guru, but only the Falcons had a worse defense last season. That hardly qualifies you as a guru. So, he’s not even doing the job on the side of the ball that he’s supposed to be good with. The Texans aren’t going to do much this season, but they should. They should be challenging for a playoff spot in this Mickey Mouse division. If they had a better coach, they could overcome the Titans and the Jags and get a Wild Card spot behind the Colts (they could even contest for the division lead, if the Colts’ D fully implodes, which is possible but unlikely). But no, they won’t, and sooner or later the Texans are going to have to can Capers and get a guy who can properly coach this team before it squanders all of its talent.

Indianapolis Colts

There are many impressive things about QB Peyton Manning besides his hilariously broken nose, but the most impressive is the fact that OC Tom Moore runs an offense that is ridiculously high-risk. We’ve seen that scheme backfire in the past, when Peyton has gotten off his game and starts putting the ball right into the defenders hands. That’s the risk factor, exposed right there. But you can run an offense that takes chances when it is so overloaded with talent like this one. WR Marvin Harrison is the best WR in football. His routes are the definition of precision, his hands are highlight-reel caliber, and despite his modest size, he’s tough to jam off the line. You can split Reggie Wayne wide or run him out of the slot, and he’ll catch a ton of balls for you either way. Brandon Stokley is a pure slot receiver, but he’s got awesome speed and he always shows up in big games. TEs Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard are always figuring in big making plays. RB Edgerrin James and Dominick Davis are entering free agency next season, so imagine how they’re going to play this year. Much of the Colts’ success, like any team’s, comes straight from its offensive line. Manning’s arm-flapping audibles are silly as Hell, but they do serve a purpose (aside from telegraphing to the defense that it’s going to be a running play). C Jeff Saturday makes pre-snap adjustments and changes his blocking based on those. The entire starting line is stocked with strong dudes, and they all have quality guys backing them up. This is one of the best lines in football, rivaled in the AFC only by Kansas City.

Head Coach Tony Dungy was brought aboard primarily to improve the Colts’ defense, a sore spot for many seasons (well, it couldn’t have been to win playoff games, could it?). He did it, too – the Colts finished 11th overall in defense last season, and 8th the season before that. His plan is relatively simple, but it’s fucking good. It starts with a heavy dose of Cover-2, a scheme that simply puts the secondary deeper on the field in order to limit big-yardage plays. It’s easy to learn, too. Now, a team that can dink-and-dunk the ball downfield – such as the WCO relies primarily upon – can move the ball against the Cover-2. But, the way to counteract that is to control the line of scrimmage with an athletic defensive line and a reliable LB corps that can plug the run, blitz, and cover the intermediate passing lanes. Oh yeah, that’s easy, right? Well, one thing Dungy does is rotate the lineman in and out throughout the game, to keep them all fresh. And, with hope, one or two of the guys will shine and have enough gas to make the occasional big play. Dungy struck gold when he drafted DE Dwight Freeney, a sure Pro Bowler. Freeney is always showing up the backfield, and he doesn’t need a blitz to get there. Freeney spent all pre-season clowning on QBs and RBs in the backfield; he’s itching for real game time. I know Dungy would like to see more out of DT Josh Williams, who was given a sizable contract this year to give him the incentive to play up to it. Losing Chad Bratzke was a bummer. The big question mark for the Colts’ defense comes up in the LB corps. Marcus Washington was lost to Redskins, so David Thornton hops into the weakside position. Is he up for bouncing his nugget off TEs all game long? Who’s strongside? Cato June? Who the fuck is Cato June? Has he learned to avoid getting tangled up by cheesy offensive lineman blocks yet? Colts fans better hope Rob Morris shows the Hell up on gameday, because he’s going to be popping from sideline to sideline in order to help this unit out. Regarding the secondary: it’s a damn good thing this unit runs Cover-2, because I’m not that thrilled with them. SS Mike Doss owns the run but the only thing he seems to cover in pass is his eyes. FS Idrees Bashir covers a little better, but his shoulder still nags and he’s about as physical as Bill Parcells. Remember the CBs who started the AFC Championship game against the Patriots last season? The Colts apparently don’t: Walt Harris and David Macklin are gonzo. Donald Strickland is in, which isn’t bad – he was a starting CB at the beginning of last season but was moved to safety due to injuries. Although Joseph Jefferson is penciled in as a starting CB, he’s green and more than likely lose the job to Nick Harper by default, which is always a great way to figure out your starting CBs. Congratulations Nick – you suck the least!

The Colts will be as strong as ever on offense, but their defense is due to take a dip. I don’t think that’s going to matter until the playoffs, where the Colts are as usual shoe-ins to appear. Nobody in their division can beat them for sure, but they do have some rough games otherwise. Nobody wants to play New England or Green Bay. I wouldn’t trust that defense against Minnesota or Oakland, either. That week 17 game at Denver could be a biggie. But, I still see the Colts taking their division, then getting whomped in the playoffs, because their defense is going to be worse this year and Tony Dungy hates going to the Superbowl.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Unbeknownst to most outside the city of Jacksonville, the Jaguars actually ran a pretty good offense, finishing 12th overall last season. QB Byron Leftwich developed as well as any rookie thrown under the bus, I mean, thrown under center, would have. He may have no mobility to speak of, but he has a great arm, reads defenses well, and has shown to be an eager student. I hope he has durability as well, because with back-up QB David Garrard done in by intestinal illness, the new #2 guy is Doug “I Fucking Suck” Johnson. Remember Doug? He filled in for an injured Michael Vick in Atlanta and orchestrated hilarious defeats for the Boids every time. What Jax needs is a decent receiving corps. WR Jimmy Smith is 35, but fortunately nobody told him. He dropped 10 pounds and he’s faster than he’s been in years. But, opposite him is a rookie: first-round pick Reggie Williams. Reggie’s 6’4” and well over two hundy, but he’s got the slowness to go with it. #3 is a serviceable Troy Edwards. Oh well, Jack Del Rio is a defensive guru who comes from the Panthers grind-it-out system and mindset, so all Jacksonville really needs is a good running game. Surprise! They have it. The Jags actually secretly have one of the best running games in the league. It all starts with RB Fred Taylor, a devastating combo of size and speed when he’s healthy. Last season he was, and he put up 1572 yards. Back-up RB LeBrandon Toefield has better hands than Taylor, so he’ll get more time and come flying out of the backfield on sweeps and tosses into the flat, along with TE duo Kyle Brady and Todd “Crack Jokes About My Name, You Will” Yoder. Expect some snaps from Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala as well. The Jax’ oft-maligned offensive line seemed to come together last year, holding the sack total to a club record-low 28. However, most of those sacks came off blitzes flying in from the outside, and OTs Mike Pearson and Maurice Williams, who are good in run protection, were often smoked. So, in comes Ephraim Salaam to hopefully beat out one of those clowns and bolster the outside on the rare occasion that Jacksonville actually calls a pass play.

It’s no secret that Del Rio was hired to implement his defensive scheme and improve the Jags’ heretofore woeful defensive showings. So: Jax finished sixth overall in D last season. Again, here are some great standings on both sides of the ball for a team that couldn’t even sniff the playoffs. It is also no surprise that Del Rio seeks to build a defensive unit that bears more than a passing resemblance to Carolina’s, his old team. Carolina has one of, if not the best, defensive lines in the league, thus Jax has used successive first-round picks on defensive linemen, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson (although Stroud pre-dates Del Rio’s tenure). However, there is little help off the bench. Last year, six of the team’s 24 sacks came from DE Tony Brackens, but the Jags are still reeling from cap difficulties and Brackens was cut in order to save money (or rather, to not spend money they don’t have). Tony’s erstwhile replacement is Hugh Douglas, a name that should make Jaguar fans feel at ease, except ol’ Hugh had his unqualified worst season as a starter last year. Worse yet, Jacksonville could have drafted USC’s Kenechi Udeze and put some youth on the end, but he had a nagging shoulder injury and I guess the Jaguars thought it would never ever heal. Settling the defensive line is always a hassle, thus it’s always smart to assemble a talented LB unit – it’s easier, too. Linebacker is the most talent-rich position in the league. MLB Mike Peterson continues to prove critics that say he’s too small wrong with his inspired play. Akin Ayodele and newcomer (from, shock of shockers, Carolina) Greg Favors round out a decent unit. The fun ends there; the Jags’ secondary is fucked-over, rebuilt, and unlikely to return to its elite form of a year ago. SS Donovan Darius is the only assured returning starter, and he’s fresh off a contract hold-out that he lost, always the sign of a committed player. Which D. Cooper will start at FS: Deion or Deke? I’m guessing Deion, he looks better overall, but having Deke around to come off the bench is nice. Both starting CBs from last year are gone, so here’s Lewis Sanders from the Browns’ so-so secondary and Juran Bolden from the Falcons’ Cover-Your-Eyes-Mom awful 32nd-rated defense. In case you missed my point, these guys are no upgrade.

As per usual for NFL teams, as one unit begins to finally come together, the other crumbles due to talent drain or injury. Jacksonville is horrifically susceptible to both obstacles. Expect a strong start and finish, but plenty of flailing in the middle. 7-9 for these guys at best.

Tennessee Titans

Why was QB Steve McNair voted co-MVP last year? I imagine a lot of it has to do with his 8.04 yards per attempt average, the best in the league. Myself, I have been in quiet amazement at the way McNair has continued to better his game season after season. Remember when people used to say the Titans were carried solely on Eddie George’s back and the D, and McNair’s job was simply to not turn the ball over? They were saying that back when the Titans lost the Superbowl by one yard – on a play that was all McNair, if you recall. Well, Eddie battled injuries (and usually lost) while McNair battled critics (and usually won). McNair has tussled with his own injury problems, and while backup Billy Volek has game (but he needs to get the ball out quicker), McNair’s absence is felt when he’s out. That feeling is simply because he’s gotten so damned good and he makes things happen on the field like few players can. Coach Jeff Fisher never says die and neither does McNair, and as a result, neither does the whole team. You just cannot count the Titans out. Now, George is gone, but in his place is second-year guy Chris Brown, who has all the size, speed, and strength the Titans need at RB. I’m expecting the Titans to go more vertical (they quietly have been doing so for a few seasons now, anyway). Reflecting that, WR Derrick Mason has put up three straight 1000+ yard seasons. He’s quick and gets open in traffic regularly. Losing Justin McCareins is acceptable because Tyrone Calico is ready to take the #2 spot. At 6’4” and 222 pounds, he has the size, but he has the deceptive speed to be a real playmaker. Still, McCariens’ departure ups the responsibility for #3 WR Drew Bennett as well. He’s no downfield burner like Justin but the reality is, he runs better routes and his hands are above reproach. The line returns intact, and only OT Fred Miller is a minor concern – specifically, his wont to commit dumbass penalties at key junctures in big games. None of these dudes better get hurt, though – the depth is wanting.

The Titans’ defense finished 12th overall last season, which is respectable, but the slightest upheaval in the roster could really hurt them. Oops, the line is totally in shambles. Robaire Smith is Gone to Texas, Kearse Freeked out to Philly. Who’s left? Kevin Carter. That being, the unbelievably overrated, overpaid Kevin Carter. Likewise Albert Haynesworth, who earned a Pro Bowl nod but then succumbed to successive Eat Attacks. So Carlos Hill has to battle All-Pro OL every week in efforts to create a pass rush. Ha ha, forget it. He’s on the right, so who’s left, as it were? A bunch of fucking rookies. ‘Nuff said. It’s all going to fall on the LBs but fortunately, they’re one of the finest LB corps in the league. WLB Keith Bullock is off a stellar Pro Bowl year and is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s among the best coverage LBs in the league. The front seven for the Titans is managed by SLB Peter Sirmon, who makes great pre-snap reads and adjustments. You’ll see him wiggling his arms around on the field constantly. MLB Rocky Camus is in his second year, and he played magnificently as a rookie. The Titans’ secondary continues to kick ass. FS Lamont Thompson will be pushing Lance Schulters for the starting job owing to his pivotal nickel coverage in the playoffs last season, which means quality depth either way. SS Tank Williams is more nimble than his name implies but just as strong in the box as his name implies. Plus, he can go deep. CB Samari Rolle is a perennial Pro Bowler and he looked phenomenal in camp. Teams try to avoid throwing at Rolle, but Andre Dyson would be the unqualified best CB on the roster on most other teams. Throwing deep on the Titans is a shitty idea.

It’s hard to ever count out the Titans and this year is no exception. However, their defensive line is simply nonexistent, a shortcoming that few teams can overcompensate. Even elite secondaries can get worn out if the opposing offensive line is controlling the trenches. Also, injuries are forever a concern with this team, starting first and foremost with its QB, for whom they cannot hope to succeed without for any length of time. It’s just going to be the same story all over again if McNair doesn’t stay healthy: dropping key late-season games to only nab a Wild Card spot, which then adds up to too many games in succession in the post-season, whereupon they all finally collapse in the fourth quarter and bow out.

Bill Dungsroman