The AFC South is an intriguing division.
One half features two potential Super Bowl contenders (Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts) and the other has two teams that will fight to reach .500 (Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars).
Interestingly enough, these four teams know one another much better than at first glance. Since they are divisional foes it’s obvious, but 2012’s slate of matchups were much more competitive than you’d think.
Therefore, leading into 2013 these opponents cannot afford to take one another lightly. And the importance of faring well in the division brings us to the third of eight divisional installments for a 2013 NFL season preview.
Should Houston’s passing game hit another level this offense will be nearly impossible to stop.
Matt Schaub hit over 4,000 yards a season ago and completed 64.3 percent of his attempts. The downside were poor performances toward the end of the regular season, which bled into the postseason thanks to his decreased confidence.
From Week 14 through the AFC Divisional road loss to New England, Schaub tossed a mere three scores to five picks, and two of the touchdowns came in garbage time against the Patriots. So, for the Texans to simply get on Super Bowl level he must spread the rock around—rookie DeAndre Hopkins is a nice sidekick to Andre Johnson—and minimize turnovers when it matters most.
Don’t worry about the running game, because Arian Foster remains a stud along with an excellent offensive line. Plus, his impact will continue to keep defenses honest for a consistent play-action passing.
The lone issue for Houston’s defense in 2012 was slowing down the passing game of elite signal-callers. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady (twice) and Matthew Stafford ripped defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ coverage. Even Chad Henne of Jacksonville and then-rookie Andrew Luck diced up the Texans.
This campaign, however, a new menace lurks back deep for the Texans: Ed Reed.
Now the Texans will emphatically improve upon 2012’s weakness against stronger and more explosive offenses. Obviously J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and the rest of the front seven will continue to dominate the line of scrimmage and apply constant quarterback pressure.
But with Reed back in Cover 1 and Cover 3, the corners can get more aggressive in press coverage and the rush will have a bit more time to wreck the backfield. Also, keep a close watch on rookie D.J. Swearinger from South Carolina who defended 21 passes from 2010 through 2012.
In a nutshell:
Houston must continue relying on Arian Foster to slam the trenches and set up the pass. Schaub simply needs to keep cool in pressure situations. The defense is even better, which is scary given last season’s sound performance.
Indianapolis is currently molding its offensive identity behind the right arm of Andrew Luck.
After tossing 23 scores to 18 picks a year ago, the guy does need to increase his 54.1 completion percentage. Nevertheless, racking up 4,374 passing yards is no fluke. His ability to decipher defenses pre-snap and keep multiple receiving targets contributing is only going to improve.
Luck is also backed by a sound running game thanks to Vick Ballard. A dual-threat athlete, Ballard rushed for 814 yards and gained 152 on 17 receptions. And he is complemented by Donald Brown, which only expands the play-sheet as far as formations and balance go.
With a plethora of receivers to target led by veteran Reggie Wayne, Indy’s offense will sustain flight-mode, but also punish on the ground when needed.
Expect the Colts to keep getting better defensively. After a disastrous 2011 campaign, Indy certainly made a turn for the better in 2012.
Still, it was not a consistent performance as the Colts ranked No. 21 against the run and No. 29 against the pass. Factor in the home loss to Jacksonville on an 80-yard catch-and-run by Cecil Shorts and that was Indy’s defense summed up.
On the bright side, Greg Toler was a great get in free agency and Vontae Davis and Darius Butler combined for seven interceptions. Mix in LaRon Landry as well and Indy’s coverage will blanket better to assist Pat Angerer and the front seven.
Provided he’s 100 percent all year, Angerer has incredible talent as evidence of 148 tackles in 2011.
In a nutshell:
Indy’s offense is developing faster than its defense. So, anticipate decently high-scoring affairs for the Colts to win. That said, the defense has potential and watch out for the Colts should they generate more turnovers.
Despite a 2-14 record in 2012, each of Jacksonville’s victories came within the division (at Colts and at home against the Titans). In addition, the Jaguars nearly upset Houston on the road when Chad Henne went off on Wade Phillips’ pass defense.
Big play ability is what makes the Jaguars a sneaky team. Maurice Jones-Drew is capable of taking a screen-pass the distance, while Cecil Shorts brings explosiveness on slants and fly patterns. Now they are without Justin Blackmon until Week 5, because he got suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
As a result, expect Jacksonville to rely on versatile rookies Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson. Another rookie to watch is No. 2 overall draft pick Luke Joeckel. If anything, he is capable of matching the impact of Matt Kalil for the Minnesota Vikings last year.
In 2011 the Jaguars fielded a top 10 defense against the run and pass. It’s amazing how much things can change in one season.
In 2012, the Jaguars went from the top 10 to one of pro football’s worst defenses. Allowing 380.5 total yards per game, Jacksonville logged an abysmal 20 sacks and just 12 picks. Plus they allowed a 63.7 completion percentage and gave up 24-plus points 12 times.
No defense will fix all of that in one offseason. But a bit of optimism does arrive courtesy of veteran rusher Jason Babin. Paul Posluszny is also a sound linebacker, although losing Daryl Smith to the Baltimore Ravens was tough.
The best aspect of this defense is its future in the secondary with rookie Johnathan Cyprien. Arguably the best safety of the 2013 draft class, Cyprien’s combination of size, speed and instincts will instantly improve Jacksonville’s coverage.
In a nutshell:
Overall youth and inexperience will hurt Jacksonville more than anything. The need to just feed MJD on offense and blitz relentlessly on defense to find an identity.
Consistency is Tennessee’s greatest offensive obstacle right now.
Even with Chris Johnson accounting for 1,243 rushing yards in 2012, he only hit over 100 yards five times. And eight times he gained fewer than 60. Now the offensive line was addressed in landing Andy Levitre, and tight end Delanie Walker brings additional run-blocking/playmaking capabilities.
Don’t be surprised to see some carries taken away from Johnson, though, and have those given to the newly acquired Shonn Greene. Greene brings the size and power to punch inside and is definitely a downhill runner. The back tandem simply takes pressure off Jake Locker and the sub-par aerial assault where only one target (Kendall Wright) caught more than 50 passes in 2012.
The good and bad of Tennessee’s defense stick out quite well. Last season the Titans had 39 sacks and 19 interception. Unfortunately, Tennessee also allowed a 66.3 completion percentage, 31 passing touchdowns and 16 rushing scores.
The safety duo of Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin will slow down opposing teams’ big play capabilities. But the front seven has to significantly improve against the run. Allowing an average of one rushing score per game doesn’t bode well for controlling the line of scrimmage.
There is a decent pass rush, but sack opportunities will also increase when the coverage improves. As the season progresses, the Titans must get overly aggressive versus the run with Zach Brown, Tim Shaw, Akeem Ayers and other contributing linebackers. Failing to do so will put the secondary in a tougher spot to defend consistently.
In a nutshell:
The Titans must provide a heavy dose of Johnson and Greene to wear down opponents early on. Not only will that set up play-action, but it keeps Tennessee’s lackluster defense off the field and helps win the possession battle.
The AFC North is a two-team race between the Ravens and Bengals and the AFC South mirrors that with the Texans and Colts. The only difference being that this division has a much wider gap by comparison.
Houston is the most complete team and its defense only improved with the addition of Ed Reed. It will be exciting to see him across from Andrew Luck two times this season. The Colts are still multiple steps back of the Texans defensively, but also ahead of Tennessee and Jacksonville.
The Titans have a strong running game to minimize an opponent’s number of possessions, but not much of a passing game to constantly prevent a defense from stacking the box. Jacksonville is similar, which also keeps them well behind Houston and Indy.
1. Houston Texans
2. Indianapolis Colts
3. Tennessee Titans
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
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