Preseason games are officially underway. Here we go, taking apart the AFC South.
“Where else would you rather be than right here, right now!”
Strength- Last year, Houston had one of the best fantasy duos at QB and wide receiver. The number one passing offense in the NFL was led by Matt Schaub. He led the league in passing yards with 4,770 yards and completions with 396. His 67.9% completion rate was fourth best, and his 29 touchdowns was fifth overall. Those numbers were all career bests for Schaub, who started all 16 regular season games for the Texans for the first time in his three years with the team. The number one QB had the number one receiver on the other end of his passes. Andre Johnson had the most receiving yards in the league with 1,569, his second straight year with over 1,500 yards. Johnson also had a league best 22 catches of 20 or more yards. Nine of his 101 catches were for touchdowns, a career high. Another important piece in Houston’s passing attack is tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels is coming off an torn ACL, which limited him to only eight games in 2009. In those games, he caught 40 passes for 519 yards and five touchdowns. Currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list, Daniels believes he will be ready for the regular season.
Weakness- While the Texans should have no problem throwing the ball, they may have trouble stopping the pass. Houston lost their best corner to Atlanta as a free agent. Dunta Robinson signed a six year contract with the Falcons, worth almost $60 million. Robinson had 13 interceptions in six seasons with the Texans, including a career high six in 2004 as a rookie (drafted 10th overall). Houston will now have to rely on corners Brice McCain, Fred Bennett, Glover Quin, and Jacques Reeves. Those four defenders had a total of two picks in 2009. Kareem Jackson was drafted out of Alabama in the first round to address the team’s biggest need. At safety, Bernard Pollard looks to build off a strong 2009. He had 102 tackles, one and a half sacks, four interceptions, and a forced fumble. 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing also recorded four picks at linebacker.
Biggest Question- Which running back will step up in 2010 and lead the team on the ground? Houston had the third worst rushing attack in 2009 with 1,475 yards. I didn’t list running backs as Houston’s weakness because their backs have potential to succeed. Steve Slaton ran for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2008. However, in 2009, he had only 437 yards (only 3.3 yards per carry compared to 4.7 in ’08), three TD’s, and seven fumbles. Arian Foster started the final game of 2009. In a win over New England, Foster had 20 carries for 119 yards and two scores. Second round pick Ben Tate out of Auburn hopes to provide a spark for the ground game. He had 3,321 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career at Auburn.
Strength- Right behind Houston’s passing offense was that of the Colts, and of course, Peyton Manning. I like to refer to Manning by his initials, M.V.P. Manning has won the Most Valuable Player award a record four times since being drafted first overall in 1998 (2003, ’04, ’08, ’09). When the Colts won the Super Bowl in 2006, he was named Super Bowl M.V.P. He has placed himself in many conversations about who is the best quarterback in NFL history. In 2009, Manning was second to Matt Schaub with 4,500 passing yards and tied for second place with Brett Favre with 34 touchdowns. In 571 pass attempts, he was only sacked 10 times. For the 12th straight year, Manning started all 16 regular season games. During his tenure with the Colts, he has a 64.8% completion rate, 50,128 passing yards, 366 touchdowns, and a 95.2 rating. His 131 career wins ranks fourth all-time. Just having Manning at quarterback makes the Colts a possible Super Bowl contender.
Weakness- The Colts were dead last in rushing yards in 2009. They ran for a mere 1,294 yards, less than half that of the New York Jets, who led the NFL on the ground last season. Joseph Addai ran for 828 yards with a 3.8 yard per carry average, and 10 touchdowns. Addai ran for over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons until he had only 544 yards in 2008. Donald Brown also contributed 281 yards and three scores, but still had only a 3.6 yard average. Some of the blame can go on the offensive line. Colts’ President Bill Polian pointed a finger at the line after losing to the Saints in the Super Bowl. Although the pass protection was solid, the run blocking needed improvement. In the offseason, guard Ryan Lilja was released. Lilja started all 16 games at left guard in 2009. Tackle Charlie Johnson hasn’t practiced since spraining his foot last week. Tony Ugoh has been filling in for Johnson, whose return timetable is unknown. Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday will be out four to six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Saturday is a big loss for Indy. He calls out all of the line’s protection schemes in Manning’s complicated play calling system. Ryan Diem has the right tackle spot locked down, but the guard positions are still up for battle. Kyle DeVan, Jamey Richard, Jaimie Thomas, and rookies Jacques McClendon and James Williams are all candidates for the open spots.
Biggest Question- Is the window for another Super Bowl ring closing on Manning and the Colts? Peyton is now 34. He may be the next Brett Favre, playing into his late 30’s and early 40’s. Indy is very lucky Manning can carry the team on his back when they’re struggling. He survived his first coaching change with ease. He has been fortunate enough that the Colts have been able to replace aging stars with fresh talent (Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison). Star receiver Reggie Wayne Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark are both 31. Jeff Saturday, now 35, has already felt the effects over a decade of wear and tear on the body. Sack artist Dwight Freeney hasn’t played a full regular season since 2006. Injuries slowed him down in the post season, too. Even though the Colts are again an AFC favorite, this team isn’t the same as the 2006 team.
Strength- Most teams choose to have a two or three running back rotation. One exception is the Titans. The second best rushing game in the league was led by Chris Johnson. Johnson eclipsed the 2,000 yard mark with 2,006 total rushing yards (the last 2,000 yard runner was Jamal Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens in 2003 with 2,066 yards). That is 590 yards more than Steven Jackson of the Rams in second place. Johnson had 22 carries of at least 20 yards, and seven carries of more than 40 yards, including a 91 yard touchdown. He had 14 scores on 358 attempts. Johnson ran through, over, and around defenses. He rushed for over 100 yards in 12 games. His biggest game came in a Week 8 victory over divisional opponent Jacksonville. In the 30-13 win, Johnson had 228 yards (new franchise record) and 2 touchdowns, one of 52 yards, and another where he ran over safety Brian Russell on an 89 yard draw. Johnson is the real deal out of the backfield. He also ran for 1,228 yards and nine scores his rookie year in 2008. Let’s see how he can improve this year.
Weakness- Tennessee had the fifth worst overall defense in 2009. They gave up 365.6 yards per game. The 25.1 points per game they surrendered was also fifth worst in the league. Although the Titans were eighth in the league in interceptions, their passing defense was only better than Detroit’s. They gave up 258.7 yards per game through the air (31st overall), and 31 touchdowns (tied 30th with Giants). Opposing quarterbacks had an average 91.2 rating when they played the Titans. Cortland Finnegan led the team with 5 picks. Linebacker Keith Bulluck, corner Roderick Hood, and safeties Chris Hope and Vincent Fuller all had three interceptions. Fuller took two back for touchdowns. To improve the pass rush, defensive end Derrick Morgan was taken in the first round of the Draft. He should replace Kyle Vanden Bosch, who signed with Detroit in the offseason. A big void will need to be filled after the aforementioned Bulluck left to play with the New York Giants. Since 2001, Bulluck recorded over 1,000 tackles, 18 sacks, 19 interceptions, and 14 forced fumbles with the Titans. Other notable defenders added include defensive end Raheem Brock and linebacker Will Witherspoon.
Biggest Question- Which Vince Young will we see this year? Young was the 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He started 13 games, and threw for 2,199 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also used his feet to run for 552 yards and 7 more scores. In 2007, Young improved his accuracy from a 51.5 % completion rate to 62.3%. He did only throw nine touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. When Kerry Collins emerged as the starter in 2008, Young started one game and threw for one score. When the Titans fell to 0-6 to start 2009, Coach Jeff Fisher gave Young another chance. He went 8-2 in the final 10 games. He amassed 1,879 passing yards and 10 touchdowns, and 281 yards and two scores on the ground. Tennessee fans hope emerging wide receiver Kenny Britt will give Young a solid target, as well as third round pick Damian Williams, and tight ends Bo Saife and Jared Cook, Jr. A more mature Young may be able to reduce the interceptions and improve his accuracy.
Strength- The Jaguars were not to far behind the Titans on the team rushing list. Jacksonville finished 2009 ranked 10th in yards gained on the ground. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew was fourth in the league in rushing yards with 1,391. His 15 touchdowns was second only to Adrian Peterson. Since former Jaguar great Fred Taylor was let go, Jones-Drew has taken over as the full-time workhorse in Jacksonville’s backfield. Ironically, Jones-Drew’s best game came in the Week 8 loss to Tennessee when Chris Johnson ran for 228 yards. The Jaguar running back ran for 177 yards on eight carries (that’s 22.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. His first score was an 80 yard toss play which tied Taylor for the longest run in Jacksonville history. In the second half, he took a simple dive up the middle, spun out of a tackle, and was off the races for a 79 yard touchdown. He is also reliable catching out of the backfield. Jones-Drew was second on the team in 2009 with 53 receptions. Maurice Jones-Drew is a factor back that can change a game with just one carry.
Weakness- Jacksonville’s defense will have to improve if the team plans on returning to the playoffs. They were 22nd overall in yards allowed, 27th against the pass and 19th against the run. In the past couple years, the Jaguars have tried to improve the pass rush through the draft (2008 eighth overall pick Derrick Harvey & second round pick Quentin Groves) but has found no success. They were last in the league this year with 14 sacks. There were 14 individual players who had 10 or more sacks themselves in 2009. Harvey had a meager two sacks. Defensive tackle John Henderson led the team with three sacks, but choose to sign with Oakland in the offseason. Groves was also traded to Oakland for a fifth round pick. Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu was taken tenth overall out of California in this year’s draft. Alualu had seven sacks in his senior year. Another tackle, D’Anthony Smith was taken in the third round. The Jaguars choose two ends in the fifth round, Austen Lane and Larry Hart. Their big offseason acquisition was Aaron Kampman, former Green Bay Packer. In his eight seasons with the Packers, Kampman recorded 54 quarterback sacks. Coach Jack Del Rio hopes a revamped line will take some pressure off his secondary.
Biggest Question– Can Jacksonville make themselves relevant again in the NFL? In 2009, seven out of Jacksonville’s eight home games were blacked out because the Jags couldn’t sell out their stadium. There has been very little buzz in the media coming out their Florida training camp. Did you know corner Rashean Mathis is unhappy with his remaining contract, just like Darrelle Revis in New York? Mathis, who has 28 interceptions in his eight seasons with the Jaguars, has reported to camp. What about Mike Thomas? He only set the franchise rookie receiving record last season with 48 receptions. The Jaguars haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, and could desperately use a strong 2010 to prove they can still compete at a high level.
Division Prediction- I must say this was the easiest pick out of the three divisions I have previewed so far. It’s the other three teams that I am having trouble placing in order. Of course, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts will win the AFC South. Can either Houston, Tennessee, or Jacksonville can take a wildcard spot in the playoffs. I’m really looking forward to see if the Texans can finally jump that hurdle to earn their first playoff appearance. The Colts, I believe, will once again have what it takes to make another deep playoff run. Maybe another game in February?