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Thursday, February 11, 2010
Measuring the AFC South vs. the Saints

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

The champs have been crowned. Thirty-one other teams now head toward March 5 when free agency begins and the 2010 league year begins.

In the copycat NFL, everyone is already wondering how they match up to the New Orleans Saints.

Not everyone will toss their formulas and look to install the Saints' systems. But it makes sense to look at how the Saints got where they are and set off "Lombardi Gras."

And so here’s a look at the AFC South and how its teams stack up against New Orleans. (AFC South teams won't be playing the Saints during the 2010 regular season; they've drawn the NFC East for next season.)

Houston Texans

Darren Sharper
The Texans don't have a playmaker in the defensive backfield who compares to Darren Sharper.
The Saints are built around quarterback Drew Brees and the Texans feel they’ve got a Super Bowl-caliber signal-caller of a similar ilk in Matt Schaub. Like Brees, Schaub is accurate and capable of posting some serious numbers -- he actually threw for 382 more yards than Brees did in the regular season. But Schaub had to throw more because he didn’t have a run game to match the one Brees worked with.

The Texans didn’t need to see the Saints' path to the title to know their run game is insufficient. Coach Gary Kubiak re-emphasized Wednesday that his team will be committed to the run. That means finding a guy who can take a good share of the carries and work in some sort of tandem with Steve Slaton is priority one on offense.

A defense that can make big plays can supplement that sort of offense. The Texans have defensive playmakers in Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing and Bernard Pollard. But they don’t have a guy like Darren Sharper, and free safety is clearly a spot Houston needs to improve to be championship-ready.

The big stat: The Saints averaged 39.4 yards per game and a full yard per carry more on the ground than the Texans in 2009.

Indianapolis Colts

We don’t need to say much here, as we just saw how the Colts measure up to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. Their offensive line and special teams didn’t match up well. They’ve allowed special teams to be an issue for too long, and need to look to upgrade those units. They can win with a less-that-fantastic run game. But when the Colts need that vital rushing yard, the line needs to deliver the blocking more consistently.

The big stat: While New Orleans led the league in average total yards per game (403.8) and Indianapolis ranked ninth (363.1) in that stat, the Saints were far more balanced (sixth in rush yards a game, fourth in pass yards) than the Colts (32nd and second).

Jacksonville Jaguars

Derrick Harvey
Despite investing their first-round pick in DE Derrick Harvey in 2008, the Jaguars are still searching for pass-rushers.
It wasn’t only the Saints. Three out of the NFL’s final four teams got there largely because an elite quarterback led them there. David Garrard doesn’t fit the bill. I’m one of any number of commentators or analysts who don’t believe he does, and his coach Jack Del Rio has said it as well. I expect the Jaguars will be looking to upgrade the spot in the draft.

Jacksonville is not going to be built in the Saints’ mold, as it looks to prove a defensive, run-oriented team can grind away and knock off teams like New Orleans. But to be that sort of team at a playoff level, the Jaguars need to find a way to beat division-rival Indianapolis with some regularity. That means winning without an elite quarterback against an elite quarterback.

While we can debate the way to throw Peyton Manning off his game -- blitz and look for ways to hurry him or complicate the coverages -- we know the Jaguars don’t yet have the personnel to do either well enough. The pass rush will be as big an offseason issue for the Jaguars as anything.

The big stat: No matter how much the Jags want to run the ball, they need to score more. New Orleans outscored Jacksonville by a 510-290 margin over the regular season. That’s nearly two touchdowns a game.

Tennessee Titans

Vince Young
If Vince Young emerges as an elite QB, it will be in a different mold than Drew Brees.
Stylistically, the Titans are going to be more like the Jaguars than the Texans or Colts, though Chris Johnson gives them a dynamic player who can match anyone’s most explosive option on offense. They won’t build to try to mirror the Saints’ mold; they will build intending to be ready to shatter the Saints’ mold.

To do so, they’ll need to rush the passer better and play stickier coverage -- keys to beating elite quarterbacks. The Saints beat Eli Manning and  Tom Brady and lost to Tony Romo in the regular season before knocking off Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in the playoffs. Tennessee lost to Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, lost twice to Peyton Manning and split against Matt Schaub.

If Vince Young emerges as an elite quarterback, he’ll still be of a vastly different style than Brees. He had one receiver who averaged better than 13.7 yards a catch in 2009 while the Saints had three who were at 15.3 yards a catch or better.

The big stat: The 2009 Titans surrendered 31 passing touchdowns compared to the Saints’ 15.