Lingering AFC South issues

October, 15, 2009
10/15/09
3:21
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky


We know a lot about the AFC South after five weeks, and each team has at least one big question as Week 6 rolls around. Let’s examine each team, shall we?

Houston Texans

 
 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
 Steve Slaton is gaining just 3.2 yards per carry after averaging 4.8 ypc in 2008.
A year ago it seemed as if the Texans had found their scheme and their back, thanks to Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking attack and third-round star runner Steve Slaton. A team that ranked 13th in rushing was plenty good enough to provide a balanced offense and a believable play-action option, a key element in the passing attack that features the team’s best player in receiver Andre Johnson.

But these Texans cannot run -- they rank 30th in the league with only 75.4 yards a game. After they struck out in their pursuit of free agent Cedric Benson -- who may have been perfect but certainly found a better situation in Cincinnati -- they failed to find the complementary back to go with Slaton. Their undrafted rookies didn’t earn the job and they turned to veteran Chris Brown. Unfortunately, Brown is completely miscast as a short-yardage specialist and has failed to score from close range when given the chance to tie two games late.

Left guard Chester Pitts was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury in Week 2 and right guard Mike Brisiel is finished for the year with a foot injury. Take away 40 percent of a line that relies on continuity and it compounds the problem. With a 3.2-yard average, Slaton is not been nearly as explosive as he was last season when he averaged 4.8 yards a carry.

Maybe they tinker with the scheme based on how they are being defended. But they’re going to have to do their best to work through it, as a personnel change that would solve things doesn’t seem possible.

Indianapolis Colts

Cop-out alert: At 5-0 heading into their bye, the Colts aren’t perfect and run-blocking qualifies as a concern. But I am hard-pressed to call it an issue or to find another. I think they are the best team in the AFC.

I thought the waiving of Ed Johnson was going to amount to the team’s first adversity. But once the team said it was a result of performance, I think it became something that won’t linger long. Having the smallest section in this blog entry is a good thing, and the three others would happily trade spots.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have done all sort of tinkering with their defensive front, and they are now regarded as a 3-4 team that converts into a 4-3 on third down and clear-cut pass-rush situations. No matter how the linemen and linebackers are aligning, however, they fail to generate a consistent pass rush.

 
 Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
 Derrick Harvey, a 2008 first-round pick, has yet to collect a sack this season.
Jack Del Rio’s team is simply not talented enough to win without making opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable. They found ways to beat division rivals Houston and Tennessee, but lost to teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Matt Hasselbeck.

They will continue to try to find ways to collapse the pocket and hit the quarterback. But the Jags are downplaying expectations for second-year end-outside linebacker Derrick Harvey as a rusher. They traded up to draft him at No. 8 last season and took Quentin Groves in the second round. The two were supposed to be the next generation of pass-rushers. They’ve combined for no sacks, one fewer than defensive tackle Montavious Stanley, a player who’s been waived four times since 2006.

Guys on the roster can get better and stronger, but this group needs an influx of talent that won’t arrive until free agency and the draft.

The good news on the pass-rush front? Nine of the Jaguars’ remaining 11 opponents don’t have unflappable, high-quality quarterbacks. But those quarterbacks will be excited at the possibility of having their best days against Jacksonville because they could be harassed less against the Jags.

Tennessee Titans

There isn’t a unit on the Titans that isn’t culpable for their 0-5 start. Out of 22 starters, I can only look at one -- middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch -- and conclude he’s doing better work this season than he did a year ago.

 
 AP Photo/Wade Payne
 The Titans need Michael Griffin to step up in the secondary.
Pass defense is the top issue, however, and the drop-off was extreme well before the Titans started to get hurt. Now without Vincent Fuller and Nick Harper for an extended time, they will see young corners Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton continue to be tested even as they’ve added veteran Rod Hood. If Cortland Finnegan (hamstring) is still out, Cary Williams could also come into play. Those inexperienced defensive backs (and Hood, who is new to the system) could be just what a tandem such as Tom Brady and Randy Moss needs to get clicking.

Certainly a less effective, less consistent pass rush is a piece of the poor pass coverage. The defensive line is considered the team’s deepest position, and it’s a group that must play better to help those in coverage survive.

But what the Titans need to happen in the defensive backfield to provide some long-term comfort is for free safety Michael Griffin, who’s regressed, and Finnegan, once he’s healed up, to make leaps in maturity and accountability and show they can be guys to be built around the way Michael Roos and David Stewart are on the offensive line.

The young talent must return to form. We’ve talked about age as an issue, and it’s fair to presume there will be a lot of turnover after this season with or without a new collective bargaining agreement.

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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