AFC South: Aaron Francisco

Tennessee Titans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
Click here for the complete list of Tennessee Titans' roster moves.
Most significant move: Al Afalava didn’t stick with the Colts when they were thinned out in the secondary, but he’s the Titans' fourth safety at the start. Another former member of the Indianapolis secondary, Aaron Francisco, had done some great special teams work and I thought he would win that job. Afalava may be sturdier, which could have helped his case. With end Dave Ball (concussion) and Leger Douzable (shoulder) put on IR, there was room for an additional tackle. But the Titans cut Zach Clayton in favor of DaJohn Harris on the inside rather than keeping both.

Onward and upward: Running back and returner Darius Reynaud was a big story in camp, and may have been destined to stick even before return man Marc Mariani suffered a terrible broken leg. The running back can do nice work in the screen game and should be a pretty good returner. On defense, Pannel Egboh, has floated around the practice squad circuit. Now he gets the big payoff and should get some work as the third end who takes some snaps on clear run downs while giving Derrick Morgan or Kamerion Wimbley a rest.

What’s next: The Titans third corner, Tommie Campbell, is in his second season. And beyond him cornerback depth is very inexperienced, with rookie Coty Sensabaugh and Ryan Mouton (who missed his second season hurt). A veteran corner could be a quality addition. The team is heavy at running back with Chris Johnson, Javon Ringer, Jamie Harper and Reynaud plus fullback Quinn Johnson. I’m skeptical of the need for a fullback who’s not an ace special teamer, and Quinn Johnson is not one.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some thoughts out of the Titans’ 32-27 win over the Arizona Cardinals at LP Field on Thursday night.
  • The Cardinals wanted to test out rookie left tackle D.J. Young as they look to replace the injured Levi Brown (triceps) for the season. Young failed this test, badly, as the Titans' big defensive free agent addition Kamerion Wimbley attacked him with great effect. Wimbley sacked John Skelton on his first play and Kevin Kolb on his first. He had a couple of hurries, too. The Cardinals' entire offensive line was bad in pass protection and the Titans rushed very effectively. Jurrell Casey is really turning into a well-rounded defensive tackle. He's an absolute handful.
  • Want variety? On the Titans' first four offensive plays from scrimmage, they lined up with an empty backfield, with two tight ends, with three wide receivers and with two backs. The only thing with the potential to make them predictable this season would seem to be down and distance.
  • Jake Locker was victimized by drops by Javon Ringer and Nate Washington, but finished the first half having hit on just 8 of 16 passes. Completing 50 percent, he still had a 115.6 passer rating since he had 124 yards and two TDs. Connections of 28, 29 and 35 yards have a way of helping out. He made better decisions and smartly took off a few times as he felt pressure.
  • On a first-quarter return, Marc Mariani suffered a gruesome broken lower left leg that was Theismann-esque. We’d been wondering about Darius Reynaud as someone putting pressure on Mariani for the return jobs. Reynaud comes out of the night as a lock to make the roster as the returner now because of Mariani’s misfortune. I don’t know whether Mariani would have been getting many, if any, receiver snaps at the expense of Kenny Britt (once healthy and when not suspended), Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams or even Lavelle Hawkins.
  • Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy has an excellent nose for the ball. But his two interceptions of Kolb on this night were absolute gifts. The first was thrown into an area filled with Titans, and he looked like the intended receiver on the second, which he returned for a 31-yard touchdown.
  • Aaron Francisco is a special-teams demon. I can’t see how he won’t be the fourth safety on this team, unless the Titans find better defensive depth elsewhere. If they do, special-teams coach Alan Lowry would surely shed a tear over losing Francisco.
  • Camp leg/kicker Will Batson was 3-for-4 on field goals, but accounted for only three points. He hit a 26-yarder in the fourth quarter, only to see it wiped away by a holding call against Taylor Thompson. Then Batson hit from 36... only to see it wiped away by a holding call against... Thompson. Then Batson hit from 46 and made it to the sideline without seeing a flag. Britt greeted him excitedly.
  • I don’t know what’s going on with the two-tone coloring of the Titans’ light blue uniform tops. But it’s incredibly distracting that the coloration is inconsistent from player to player. Quinn Johnson and Ringer, standing side-by-side, didn’t look like they were wearing the same jersey. Honestly. Nike, are you reading?
  • The new “Titantrons” at LP Field are really impressive. It’s a big benefit of the stadium’s open-end zone configuration. -- finding room to fit giant HD video boards wasn’t an issue. Some other buildings that might want to match these won’t have a spot for them. Stadium game productions are updated and far better. But the lyrics of "Folsom Prison Blues" on the big screens, intended to produce a sing-a-long between the third and fourth quarter, appeared to fail miserably. Put that one on the shelf.
The rule about an early, unofficial depth chart: At many spots, it doesn’t mean a lot.

Still we have an initial guide of how players are likely to be deployed in early practices.

So here are some notes :
  • Rather than listing Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker as joint first-teamers, the incumbent veteran is listed as the No. 1 with Locker on the second team. That’s completely appropriate and says nothing about the competition they are both entering.
  • The starting offense here is two-back, which means fullback Quinn Johnson is a starter and tight end Jared Cook is the No. 2 tight end. But he’ll be on the field as much or more than "starter" Craig Stevens, and the Titans will be in two-tight plenty as well. Hopefully far more than two-back.
  • Damian Williams is listed as No. 2 behind Kenny Britt, with Kendall Wright third. That’s typical for rookie placement on a depth chart like this. Lavelle Hawkins is second to Nate Washington on the other side.
  • Same goes for defensive tackle Mike Martin (listed third), who can certainly pressure second-teamer Shaun Smith.
  • Newly signed Aaron Francisco is the No. 2 strong safety behind Jordan Babineaux.
  • Jon Cooper, a third-year center out of Oklahoma, is listed as the third-stringer behind Eugene Amano and Kevin Matthews, but he's ahead of undrafted rookie William Vlachos from Alabama. Again, likely a seniority/ experience thing.
  • Undrafted tight end Beau Brinkley is the one rookie listed in a “starting” slot. He’s the team’s top long-snapper right now, with Fernando Velasco behind him.

I did mention we shouldn't read too much into this, right?
The Indianapolis Colts' defense made a strong showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night without linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt.

Any further strong efforts will also have to come without the two starters, as the team put them both on injured-reserve Wednesday with their shoulder injuries.

One of the roster spots made room for quarterback Dan Orlovsky. The other was used for A.J. Edds, who was signed off the New England Patriots' practice squad. Edds played in the Patriots’ first two games before he was cut and signed to the practice squad.

The Colts are better equipped to deal with the loss of Brackett than Bullitt, even as Bullitt was not off to a good start.

Pat Angerer slid from the strong side to the middle with Brackett out since the opener, and Angerer made 20 tackles from the spot against Pittsburgh Sunday while Philip Wheeler stepped in as the third linebacker.

But David Caldwell, who replaced Bullitt in the starting lineup in Week 3 for his first NFL start, was not as good.

The Colts were depleted at the strong safety spot opposite free safety Antoine Bethea in the center of the defensive backfield last season when Bob Sanders and Bullitt were both lost to injuries. Ultimately they turned to Aaron Francisco, who wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

They released Sanders after the season, and he’s now in San Diego. They re-signed Bullitt, an unrestricted free agent, and now will turn to Caldwell or another player they didn’t draft, rookie Joe Lefeged.

Defensive depth has taken a serious hit just three weeks in. And with Peyton Manning, Brackett and Bullitt all out of action, they’ve got some big dollars out of the lineup.

UPDATE: Ironically, San Diego put Sanders (knee) on IR Wednesday as well.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- It’s trendy to call the Colts aging and to view the Texans and even the Jaguars as up-and-comers in the AFC South.

But if Indianapolis is healthy, it’s awfully risky to be ahead of the curve regarding its demise.

This is a team that lost a ton of talent to injury last season and still won the division at 10-6. It’s added some nice pieces on defense through bargain-basement free-agency. It drafted two offensive tackles who should be pillars, and also selected a short-yardage back.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a big rebound year, and most teams aren’t even talking rebound when it comes to following a division title.

“I think it’s really the same team,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett said.

The same team is a major threat to win the division and compete for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Should it break through for the third Super Bowl appearance of the Peyton Manning era, a huge prize awaits: The game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium.


1. Manning’s health.

Peyton Manning
Photo/Michael ConroyIt's unclear how soon Peyton Manning will return from offseason neck surgery.
He spoke after signing his contract and has been seen around the team a couple of times during training camp at Anderson University. But like in 2008 following offseason knee surgeries, he’s not practicing.

This time it’s a result of neck surgery in May. It’s the second year in a row Manning had a neck procedure after the season. But he and the team have expressed confidence that all he needs is time and rehabilitation. It’s unlikely that a five-year, $90 million contract would have gotten done if the medical staff and management had any doubts.

While the Colts move forward without Manning, his absence also puts them in limbo. No matter how strongly they spin Curtis Painter’s performance, the defense isn’t being pushed in practice the way it would be if Manning was running the other side.

And no matter how precise the routes, how good the blocking or how well-timed the play, the offense will still need to sync it all up with the star quarterback once he returns.

That knee in 2008 limited him early, when the team struggled out of the gate. Coming back from a neck injury, Manning is less likely to have any sort of mechanical issues or physical limitations that affect his passing. That’s one case for expecting a better start after so much missed time.

The timetable for his return is unknown. You know the drill: They say he’s progressing well, that they are optimistic, etc., and no one outside a very tight circle has any real idea when he will re-emerge. He was spotted once throwing with what a witness called “decent velocity.” Hey, encouraging news is encouraging news.

2. Is the secondary deep enough?

Last season, the Colts were stretched virtually everywhere. Aaron Francisco wasn’t on the team for opening day, ranking as the fourth or fifth option at strong safety, and he played a good share of the season as the starter.

Behind free safety Antoine Bethea and re-signed and healthy strong safety Melvin Bullitt, there are unproven options including Al Afalava, Joe Lefeged, Mike Newton, David Caldwell and Chip Vaughn.

And after the top three corners -- Jerraud Powers, Justin Tryon and Jacob Lacey -- there also isn’t proven depth.

“At the safety position, I’m confident that we’re going to get two guys that will emerge there,” Colts vice chairman Bill Polian said. “We see enough signs to know that there is quality in that group.

“I also think there is some quality in the backup corners. Kevin Thomas is one of them. There are some interesting guys, and they’ll play themselves on or off the roster based on the preseason. But based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’d say we’ve got a good group and one or two guys will emerge.”

They will all benefit, of course, from a better pass rush. And if Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are better supplemented by Jerry Hughes and Jamaal Anderson on the edges and Tommie Harris provides a solid nickel push in the middle, they could have one.

3. Will the passing game have enough consistent weapons?

The ability of the 2010 Colts to get production from the likes of tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White was remarkable.

Austin Collie
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Colts hope Austin Collie's concussion issues are in the past and that he'll be on the field for the entire season.
But if they can’t count on often-injured receiver Anthony Gonzalez or Austin Collie, who was shut down last season after concussion issues, it will be harder to make things go again.

Reggie Wayne is in fantastic shape and working hard, and will be a key target for Manning as always. Dallas Clark is back from a wrist injury. If the Colts are calling plays for those two and Pierre Garcon, Collie and Gonzalez, they can be potent. If the group shrinks, the effort is more exhausting.

Manning averaged 6.92 yards per attempt in 2010. That’s the lowest mark in his career outside of his rookie season (6.5). The Colts need to find more big plays and move the ball with a little less effort to be the kind of team they want to be.


If the Colts get a significant contribution out of Anderson, Harris or linebacker Ernie Sims, it’ll be a win. All three signed cost-effective one-year deals that amount to low-risk, high-reward scenarios. Polian said in a normal year, the market wouldn’t have given the team an opportunity to sign players like these, veterans who are all ideally suited for Indy’s defense. If they get something from two of them, it will make for a home run. Three-for-three amounts to a grand slam. Harris looks very good so far, while Sims is recovering from an appendectomy.


Polian was singing Philip Wheeler’s praises and saying that while the team loves starting strongside linebacker Pat Angerer, it loves Wheeler too. But he failed to hold the job last season and should be able to win and hold a starting job by now. Brody Eldridge gets a mention, too. He had knee surgery after last season, and a setback means he hasn’t seen the practice field yet. They need him to be part of the run game.


  • Delone Carter is coming into a perfect situation as a rookie. He’s unlike any of the Colts' other running backs and should get chances in short yardage and goal-line situations. If Javarris James ran for six touchdowns last season, Carter could run for 12 this fall. The Colts can continue to praise Donald Brown, but with Joseph Addai back and Carter in the fold, when does Brown get on the field?
  • It was a surprise to find Lacey as the No. 2 cornerback at the start of camp. He was better as a rookie than in his second season. And he can be an effective piece of the secondary. But I’d bet on Tryon passing him before opening day.
  • After one long and hot afternoon practice session, two players stuck around to catch machine-thrown balls: Wayne and Bethea. Those are some solid veterans and the kind of guys any team would like to have leading the way.
  • Manning didn’t react well to TV crews that saw a recent throwing and running session. My understanding is that the Earth is still spinning, however. I understand being private, but everything and everyone cannot always be controlled. Did I miss the catastrophic outcome?
  • The buzz is good on Hughes, and with him and Anderson in the mix, the Colts may pace Freeney and Mathis better. That could make for fresher stars in December and January.
  • They won’t talk until after the season, but as of now I’d expect the Colts to try to keep both Wayne and Mathis with new contracts.
  • Jacques McClendon or Joe Reitz could be an upgrade over Kyle DeVan at left guard. The big question on the line to me -- presuming Anthony Castonzo takes over left tackle reasonably quickly -- is right guard. Mike Pollak has had sufficient opportunity, and the team can aspire to be better there. Couldn’t they be better with Ben Ijalana there until he’s ready to displace Ryan Diem at right tackle?
  • 'Tis the season for Garcon to prove he's a consistently reliable threat. He had too many drops and too many lapses last season. He needs to be more than fast. He spent more time with Manning this offseason, before the neck surgery, than he did last offseason.
Missed tackles can kill.

As I am a positive guy, my first thought after reading this fine piece from Aaron Schatz wasn’t about Michael Griffin's 17 missed tackles or Will Witherspoon's missed tackle rate of 19.5.

No, it was of just how impressive Antoine Bethea's numbers were by Football Outsider’s count in 2010. Holding together a secondary that literally crumbled around him, Bethea made 80 tackles and missed two. Two.

His 3.6 missed tackle percentage ranked fifth in the league, but only one other player on it had more tackles than Bethea did -- Buffalo’s Donte Whitner had 105 tackles and four missed, for 3.4 percent.

I think Bethea is excellent. He was our All AFC-South free safety, he should have been second-team All Pro considering a bunch of guys tied for the honor with one vote apiece. Here is further evidence for all that.

Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis also rated quite well, with 48 tackles and just one missed tackle.

The Titans, meanwhile, had three of the top seven players on the missed tackles list in Griffin, Witherspoon (15) and Stephen Tulloch (13). Houston saw Bernard Pollard miss 13 and Glover Quin miss 11, while Eugene Wilson’s miss rate was 16.3 percent.

Bethea’s safety mate for the majority of the season, Aaron Francisco, was the second worst defensive back missing 17.6 percent of his chances.

Perhaps Bethea can put on a clinic for Tennessee and Houston?
I’m sorry to say I’ve not been keeping up with this series by Rob Rang. But I found what he had to say about two AFC South newcomers at major positions of need to be quite interesting.

In short: He likes Shiloh Keo as a Texans safety and he’s not all that fired up about Chris Prosinski as a Jaguars safety.

Keo is rated a quality fit:
"I have my reservations about how well Keo will be able to cover against NFL speed, but the primary issue in the Houston secondary the past few seasons hasn't been speed -- it has been a lack of instincts and reliable open-field tackling. In these areas, Keo ranks among the elite safeties in the entire 2011 draft. Keo's initial impact will almost certainly be felt on special teams - where he could prove to be a demon. A playmaking punt returner in college, watch for Keo to make the adjustment to special teams coverage, rather than returning, to be his NFL [specialty]. One might argue that in the fifth round, the Texans should have been looking for a future starter (which I don't know that Keo will ever become), but at pick No. 144, there were few players more guaranteed to make a more immediate impact on special teams, so I see the pick as having good value."

Prosinski is rated a questionable fit:

"It is perhaps a little unfair to characterize Prosinski as a questionable fit considering how badly the Jaguars needed help at safety and the former Wyoming standout's unique athleticism. A three-year starter for the Cowboys, it was a bit of a surprise when Prosinski wasn't invited to the Combine considering his high level of play and the relative weakness of the position. He answered all questions about his athleticism at his Pro Day when he registered a 4.39 40, 39 1/2-inch vertical, 4.28 short shuttle, and 11-foot-2-inch broad jump. That said, I do have some concerns about his ability to transition to the NFL. Jaguars' general manager Gene Smith might be the NFL's most aggressive draft-day talent evaluator. This pick might turn out well like some of his past selections, but in my conversations with other teams' scouts, this was viewed as a legitimate reach."

More interesting stuff on what may be the most interesting position in the division, and by interesting I mean weak. (Indianapolis’ Antoine Bethea is a stud. Tennessee’s Michael Griffin can be good but is very inconsistent. Indianapolis’ Melvin Bullitt is reliable. Beyond that, what’s to like?)

According to Pro Football Focus, Bethea ranked ninth in the NFL in tackle attempts per missed tackle. Remarkably, Reggie Nelson, who couldn’t tackle at all at the end in Jacksonville, ranked 16th in his first year in Cincinnati. People must have been falling down at his feet.

On the other end of the spectrum: Jacksonville’s Sean Considine was the sixth worst safety in the league with a missed tackle every 5.1 attempts, Indianapolis’ Aaron Francisco (who was about fourth string) was eighth at 6.2 and Griffin was 19th at 7.0.
A look back at pre-draft reviews of a late-round success or an early-round miss in the AFC South.

Antoine Bethea, Colts free safety, Howard, sixth round, 207th overall

Mel Kiper, 23rd safety

“Very tough, fast and athletic in the defensive secondary, Bethea has some talent and could make the jump from the I-AA level to the NFL. … Bethea stuck out in some games at the small college level. He has good workout numbers and is a tough hitter. Despite doing all of his damage against a low level of competition, he might be able to secure a roster spot for himself at the pro level. The problem is he didn’t really dominate at the Division I-AA level like his Combine numbers would lead you to believe. What the results from Indy did, however, was move him into a draftable or priority free agent category.”

Pro Football Weekly, seventh free safety

“A play-maker at the Division I-AA level, Bethea has the toughness, instincts and special-teams personality to make a team and could develop into a fine safety.”

NFL Draft Scout, sixth free safety

“He is not the complete player that his former teammate Ronald Bartell is, but he does a good job of breaking down plays in the open and as he develops a better understanding for reading the quarterback, he will be a starter in this league before long.”

After five seasons:

Bethea didn’t make the Pro Bowl in 2010. He also didn’t get a vote for the 2010 All-Pro team when eight guys with single votes all claimed a share of a second-team spot. He would have gotten one from me, as he served as the glue on an injury-ravaged defense. He played most often with a safety, Aaron Francisco, who ranked roughly fourth on the team's depth chart.

Adept in coverage and run defense, Bethea has consistently been able to keep things in front of him and help limit big plays. He has been a superb fit in the Colts’ system and he earned Pro Bowl slots in 2007 and 2009.

His transition to the NFL was not gradual -- he started 14 regular season games and four playoff games as a rookie, playing both safety positions for a Super Bowl winner.

Last summer, he signed a four-year, $27 million contract that assured him $18 million in the first two seasons.

Double Coverage: Jets at Colts II

January, 6, 2011
Double IllustrationWho has the advantage in the wild-card game between the Colts and the Jets this Saturday? Our bloggers debate.
In last season's AFC Championship Game, the upstart New York Jets were on their way to scoring their third straight road upset in the playoffs. They'd already knocked off a pair of division champions and led the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But the Colts outclassed the Jets in the second half and won easily to advance to the Super Bowl. The Jets had to regroup, knowing that to attain their Super Bowl dreams, they had to figure out a way to get past the Colts.

They won't need to look for them in the playoffs this year. The Jets and Colts will meet in the first round Saturday night, again in Indianapolis. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break down the rematch.

Tim Graham: The first thought I have about the Colts is that Peyton Manning isn't going to win this game with his aura. Aside from past experience, the Jets don't have much reason to quake in their cleats Saturday night. They can beat this guy. Manning has proven to be a mortal without tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez to target. Seventeen interceptions? Almost knocked out of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars? These Colts are a shadow of what we've come to know.

Paul Kuharsky: How about with his chakra, then? You've been spending too much time with Ricky Williams, dude. Has Manning been perfect? Hardly. But as Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy points out, and our ESPN Stats & Information confirms, Manning threw for 4,700 yards, tossed for more than 30 touchdowns, connected on 66 percent of his throws, had an interception rate of 2.5 percent and won 10 games. If that's a shadow of what you've known, you must really know Tom Brady’s 2007 season then. Because that was the only other time it has happened.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets' Mark Sanchez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJets quarterback Mark Sanchez reached 10 wins two games faster than former league MVP Peyton Manning.
TG: Yeah, Manning won 10 games. So did Eli Manning and Josh Freeman. They didn't make the playoffs. The Colts' shadow doesn't have much to do with Peyton Manning slinging the ball all over the yard and racking up yardage. He's still great, but he's not a one-man show. If I were a Colts fan, my concern would be how they needed to close with four straight wins to avoid the embarrassment of being edged out of the playoffs by the Jaguars. The Jets, on the other hand, have shown to be a more complete team. That's how an erratic quarterback like Mark Sanchez can win one more game than Manning did and clinch a playoff berth weeks in advance.

PK: Well, Manning's always been crushed for being great in the regular season and not good enough in the playoffs. Congrats on being the first to hammer him for winning "only" 10 games and the division while throwing to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.

TG: That's what I mean. The Jets can contain those guys much easier than Clark and Collie. Plus, the Jets have been preparing for this matchup since last season's AFC Championship Game. They helplessly watched Manning carve the center of the field against them and realized immediately -- even though they had Darrelle Revis -- they needed more cornerbacks. Specifically with Manning in mind, the Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round. Previous starting cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman gave them depth in nickel and dime packages. The Jets' biggest issue is at safety, where injuries have made them vulnerable.

PK: Manning has a bit of experience against teams with poor safety situations. His numbers against Houston and Jacksonville? Just nine touchdowns, one pick and a 101.5 passer rating. On the other side is the unspectacular Sanchez. I doubt Sanchez will be able to attack Aaron Francisco, the Colts' fourth-string strong safety, in a similar fashion, but we'll see. The Sanchize was near perfect in the first half of last season's AFC Championship Game. But the Jets asked him to throw only seven passes. After intermission, Indy greatly reduced his potency. The Colts didn't sack him and were credited with only four hits that day. The Colts' big-play potential from their Pro Bowl defensive ends was neutralized, and they still rolled to a 30-17 win. Of course, it might have had something to do with Manning throwing two-second half touchdowns to Sanchez's zero (and one interception). What happens this time if Dwight Freeney and/or Robert Mathis are able to introduce themselves to him a few times?

TG: Sanchez absolutely is the pivotal figure for the Jets on Saturday night. But, much like the personnel adjustments head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made on the defensive side to thwart Manning, they made changes on offense with the playoffs in mind. Sanchez might not have progressed much in his second season, but he didn't have a sophomore slump either. He has gained another 11 months and 16 games of NFL experience since the last time he faced the Colts. Plus, the Jets' offense has the ability to come from behind, something it couldn't do before. Last season's Jets were all ground-and-pound, and if an opponent took a two-score lead, the Jets' chances to win were slim. Sanchez showed several times this year he can strike in crunch time. Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield give him much better weapons to go along with Braylon Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller.

PK: The most dramatic on-the-field difference in the Colts this year as compared to last is how they finished up running the ball and defending the run. Indianapolis enters the playoffs coming off four games in which they ran for 4.5 yards a carry and held opponents to 3.5 yards. Last year in their final four meaningful regular-season games, they were getting 3.5 yards and allowing 4.1 yards.

TG: Maybe the Colts will morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins before our eyes.

[+] Enlarge Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezColts running back Joseph Addai is averaging 4.3 yards per carry in an injury-plagued season.
PK: A month ago the Colts defense recommitted to playing fast and having fun. It's funny how a team can get away from such simple themes, especially when a return to them produces such fine results. Gary Brackett's been great. Fellow linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have been quite good, even as rookies. Veteran Clint Session could return to take time from Conner. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen's willing to send in whichever back is best suited for a situation or a matchup, so we could see any sort of mix of running backs Joe Addai, Dominic Rhodes and Donald Brown on Saturday night. They are running more than well enough to give the Colts a balance that makes Manning's play-action super effective.

TG: Momentum on the ground has been a concern for the Jets since their bye in Week 7. Tomlinson went from MVP candidate to looking like the worn out player the San Diego Chargers thought they were bidding farewell. But Shonn Greene and Tomlinson found some traction in the closing weeks. Let's not even factor in what the Jets did against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale, even though their backups trampled the Bills' first-stringers for 276 yards.

PK: I’m always willing to toss out Buffalo. I don’t even really like wings.

TG: Yeah, but I know you still have a cache of Rick James 8-tracks. Anyway, the Jets ran the ball well against three of the NFL's best run defenses late in the year. They surpassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading average by 43 yards and the Chicago Bears' second-rated run defense by 34 yards. As for stopping the run, the Jets pride themselves on it and improved statistically this year. They ranked third this year at 90.9 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry. But -- and this is a big one -- they allowed more than 100 yards in each of their games before the finale. The Steelers averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The Bears averaged 4.4 yards. That said, I would be willing to bet if the Colts wanted to try to run the Jets to death and not have Manning throw so much, then the Jets would be thrilled.

PK: Give me a little impersonation of Rex Ryan thrilled after winning this game.

TG: It probably would go a little something like this ... "Well, shoot, doesn't feel much better than that, to be honest with ya. We played like Jets today. It was a dogfight out there; I'll tell ya that much. Those Colts are sunthin' else. One thing I'll say about them: I saw Joseph Addai running like Lydell Mitchell out there and was, like, 'Whoa! Wait a second! We could be in for a long day here.' But our defense was flying around and eventually found a way to wrestle him down out there. I said earlier in the week this was personal with Peyton Manning, and they do a great job. He's great, and it's hard to get to him, but I just feel like we knew what to expect and were able to find a way to bear down and put all our chips in the center of the table and beat him. That guy's had my number and it feels good to know I can beat the guy when it counts. But I gotta give a ton of credit to our offense out there, too. Mark Sanchez played great and showed why we traded up to draft him. That right there's what we saw when we scouted him and just knew this guy was going to be a special player. Their crowd was tough with the way they were roaring at the opening kickoff I was, like, 'Whooo! Here we go!' It was full speed ahead. But one thing I should point out is that I broke out my lucky sweatshirt with the pizza stain this week." ... How would Jim Caldwell react to a Colts win Saturday night?

PK: I can hear him, his voice just the same as if they'd have lost: "We're pleased to have beaten a good football team, a quality football team. It's gratifying that our work this week paid off. I shared with you some of the examples of the studiousness I encountered during the preparation week. You saw the rewards of that. We'll enjoy it, we should enjoy it, it was hard-fought and we’re fortunate. We will have to do those same things to prepare for Pittsburgh. It’s a tough place to play, an excellent football team. It's a new challenge. It will be fun to see them get out there and see what they can do."

TG: In that case, I'm glad I'll be covering the Jets' locker room, win or lose. It'll be more interesting. I think the Jets have a better chance to win the game than a lot of prognosticators are giving them credit for. But even if they can't pull off the upset, they'll face a lot of questions as an organization. With all of the negative attention they've generated this season, a loss against the team they spent a year preparing for should lead to considerable introspection in Florham Park. Should we make picks?

PK: Sure. I pick St. Elmo. Make a reservation.

Colts regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 1

AP Photo/AJ MastJacob Tamme stepped in for an injured Dallas Clark and caught 67 passes in 10 games.
Biggest surprise: Substitutes called into action because of injuries played very well. Jacob Tamme is not the player Dallas Clark is. But once Clark was done with a wrist injury, Tamme was a consistently productive piece of the offense. He was better than plenty of No. 1 tight ends in the league in terms of his work as a receiver. Justin Tryon was a find, rookie linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner are good players, Aaron Francisco was better than serviceable, Blair White was a contributor, and Dominic Rhodes was a smart late add. When all those guys and a lot more who were slated to be spot starters are in the mix, you’re not supposed to win your division.

Biggest disappointment: The injuries. The Colts finished the season with 17 players on injured reserve. They started 14 different players on offense and 19 on defense. By my count, 14 key players missed at least two games. The guys on that list -- Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, Clark, Austin Collie, Brody Eldridge, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Kelvin Hayden, Antonio Johnson, Jacob Lacey, Daniel Muir, Jerraud Powers, Bob Sanders and Clint Session -- sat out 44.2 percent of games they could have played. Sure, every team deals with issues, but these were extreme and few teams could have survived them and made the playoffs.

Biggest need: The offensive line. Team president Bill Polian admitted he underestimated Rodger Saffold in the draft and the St. Louis Rams left tackle could have been a nice piece for Indianapolis. The Colts made do, again, and the group they’ve gone with in recent weeks has shown marked improvement and has been getting very nice push in the run game. Still, Peyton Manning needs more time and a more reliable run game from Day 1. The Colts must invest in upgrading the offensive line through the draft, free agency or both.

Team MVP: Manning. He had a poor stretch during a losing streak. But the Colts needed him to throw, and he set a new league record for pass completions with 450 while helping turn some less-than-ideal targets into viable options.

Decisions loom: The Colts generally hang on to their people, but as they evaluate the injury issue and try to move forward, it may be time to conclude they can’t depend on guys such as Sanders and Gonzalez. You can’t blame a player for getting hurt and you can’t forecast bad luck. But you can get a sense of who may be more likely to get hurt than the average guy. How do you plan when you have little reasonable expectation of getting a long-term contribution from a player? They spent a third-round pick on USC corner Kevin Thomas, who had an injury history. He immediately got hurt and was not available at all his rookie year.

RTC: Our take on all the big stories

December, 21, 2010
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

This Richard Justice column is the best piece on Bob McNair that I can remember. I really hope he reads it. Several times. And I think fans of his team deserve to hear a response to it. I know he’s not going to speak to it specifically, but he should speak to the theme and attempt to actually connect with the mindset of his fans. You don’t want to overreact to fan sentiment, but when it’s built up like it has you do them a disservice by not touching it.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have gone through six safeties and could be down two more, says Phil Richards. On the bright side, free safety Antoine Bethea remains in place and third-string strong safety Aaron Francisco is still playing. I won’t be surprised to see Bethea on the injury report this week as he was shaken up late against the Jaguars. I asked him about it and he said it was nothing.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Gene Frenette didn’t like Jack Del Rio’s fourth-down decision early in the third quarter. I’ve got a standard stance on such situations: If you make it, I love it; if you don’t, not so much. It did seem like a desperate move. But the fact is, if David Garrard snuck as he should have (he didn’t hear that part of the call on a patchy headset), he would have converted and if Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t fumble the pitch he would have made it too. But they didn’t, so it was a mistake.

Tennessee Titans

I don’t believe Bo Scaife was benched because he said the locker room might be divided on Vince Young. Scaife stated a fact and Jeff Fisher’s not going to sit a guy who gives him a better chance to win. We may have seen the last of Scaife as a Titan. And Fisher actually sitting veterans (Vincent Fuller was scratched, too) is a big development that’s not bad. That said, I know they play different positions, but Scaife should dress ahead of Randy Moss.

Five things to watch: Colts at Titans

December, 9, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Barring a scoreless overtime, the Colts' appearance at LP Field guarantees that one AFC South team will end a losing streak Thursday night.

As they brace for the first of two head-to-head matchups in the final month of the season, the Colts (6-6) and Titans (5-7) have combined to lose eight straight.

Somebody gets to leave the stadium tonight feeling a lot better. Here are five questions to consider before we see who that is.

1. Will Peyton Manning break out of his funk? He has 11 interceptions in his past three games. But the Titans have only three interceptions during their five consecutive losses. Look for corner Cortland Finnegan to draw the difficult Reggie Wayne assignment, but to have plenty of help as the Titans show themselves more willing to take chances with Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme and especially Blair White.

Rookie Alterraun Verner is the second starting corner and will face Manning for the first time, and second-year man Jason McCourty will work in the nickel. McCourty started last season in a loss to the Colts when the Titans gave up 309 passing yards and three passing touchdowns to Manning with only one pick.

Tennessee has been getting crushed in time of possession -- it hasn’t held the ball for 21 minutes in its past two losses. Manning will be content to take what’s given and string together long drives if he can.

2. Who’s playing in the Colts' secondary? The Colts' starting cornerbacks are out -- Jerraud Powers is finished for the season after surgery to repair a broken forearm and Kelvin Hayden is not recovered from a neck injury. That means Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon are in line to work as the top two corners with rookie Cornelius Brown as the nickel.

The Titans have hardly been slinging it. They haven’t scored an offensive touchdown since Nov. 21. But Kerry Collins will have receiver Kenny Britt back after a four-game layoff with a hamstring injury and surely Tennessee will finally throw a jump ball to Randy Moss, right?

A drop-off at corner can mean extra strain on safeties Antoine Bethea and Aaron Francisco. Unless, of course, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are regularly able to hurry Collins and shorten the clock for all the guys in coverage.

3. How many catches will Tamme have? While the tight end has been productive, he’s not Dallas Clark. But the Titans' defense has given up significant yardage to tight ends far less talented than Clark this season.

I don’t know that anything has changed for the Titans' linebackers, who are most responsible for those issues, and I look for the Colts to be primed to attack the soft underbelly of the Tennessee defense until Stephen Tulloch or Will Witherspoon or Gerald McRath prove things are any different.

Heck, watch the banged-up Brody Eldridge make a couple of key catches.

4. How much will Indy even try to run it? The Colts would like to show some semblance of balance and some effective runs would help keep the play-action believable -- though everyone seems to bite on it even when they can’t run. It will be interesting to see how coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen deploy Donald Brown, Javarris James and Dominic Rhodes.

“They won’t run on us if we play Titans’ defense, to tell you the truth,” defensive tackle Jovan Haye said. “If we have somewhat of a repeat performance from Sunday, then they will. They utilize it in their offense, but they’re not a big run team. If we play like we did [surrendering 258 rushing yards in the loss to Jacksonville], they’ll run the ball.”

5. Can Chris Johnson get something going? He wants more carries and the Titans are desperate to get him going to help elongate drives, keep the defense off the field and alter the time of possession trend. But last year the Colts didn’t allow him a carry longer than 11 yards in two games while holding him to a 4.1-yard average.

Titans fullback Ahmard Hall said tackle Fili Moala, in his first year starting, and rookie linebacker Pat Angerer have been very effective run-stopping pieces on top of what the Colts had previously.

The Titans need to show a willingness to throw deep to Britt and Moss to keep the Colts honest and buy a bit of extra space and time for Johnson.

“He is an outstanding back with outstanding numbers,” Caldwell said. “I think what happens just like anything else, people get spoiled. He is a talented guy and I think he has been performing well. We have to get ready to handle him because he is a heck of a back.”

Wrap-up: Colts 23, Bengals 17

November, 14, 2010
Thoughts on the Colts’ 23-17 win over the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium.

What it means: The Colts moved to 6-3 and stand alone atop the AFC South thanks to Tennessee’s loss in Miami.

Turnover festival: Indianapolis scored 17 points off turnovers. Kelvin Hayden had his second pick-6 in three games. Tyjuan Hagler and Aaron Francisco also had interceptions, while Kavell Conner and Dwight Freeney forced fumbles that were recovered by Antonio Johnson and Mike Newton. Meanwhile, the offense didn’t turn it over. That’s an easy way to survive being outgained 341-256 in total net yards.

What I liked: A start for Jeff Linkenbach at right guard over Mike Pollak that appeared to be merit-based.

What I didn’t like: Pierre Garcon’s inability to secure an onsides kick late that would let the Colts’ worry less. A 42-yard run by Brian Leonard on a fourth-and 1 for Cincinnati. It was his only carry of the game.

The next newcomer: Brandon James did little as the punt returner, but he did chip in with four catches for 36 yards. For those keeping track he qualifies as the team’s sixth wide receiver.

What’s next: A trip to New England for the always intriguing matchup with the Patriots.
Soon, we hope, the league will clarify how the hit on Austin Collie was sorted out and tell us whether it was correct. Maybe it’ll fine Kurt Coleman and/or Quintin Mikell for the hit that left Collie motionless, and eventually diagnosed with a concussion.

But as it happened and still right now, the play is symbolic of how the league has confused everyone with a crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless receivers. (Tweets I’ve received show that a good share of people still think any helmet-to-helmet hit is illegal, which is not the case.)

My initial reaction is here, and here is a post based on how Jacob Lacey and Aaron Francisco saw it.

A pool report where one reporter talks to officials about a controversial play on behalf of all is intended to clarify things, but Cal Cheffers and Todd Prukop only muddled things further.

I think virtually everyone who saw the play and has re-watched it still doesn’t understand exactly what the officials saw and called, or how they saw and called what they did. That's not a catch? Really?

Ashley Fox gives a quality, straight-forward take on the complicated situation.

“I get that everyone is freaking out over protecting players from hits to the head,” Fox wrote. “The potential consequences of concussions are terrifying, and doctors and researchers have only scratched the surface in explaining what repeated blows to the brain will mean to the men who play this game.

“But there is protection and there is overreaction, and in the Eagles' locker room there is now much confusion.”

It’s hardly limited to the Eagles’ locker room.

The rules and the interpretation are either too convoluted or have not been spelled out clearly enough.

And it’s something the league needs to make a lot clearer or there is potential for controversy on every hit near the head.
PHILADELPHIA -- Hours after their fallen teammate was diagnosed with a concussion and was moving around OK, a couple of Colts defensive backs said they were sympathetic to the Eagles defensive backs who combined on the hit that landed him there.

[+] EnlargeAustin Collie
AP Photo/Miles KennedyColts wide receiver Austin Collie, center, is hit by Eagles safeties Quintin Mikell, left, and Kurt Coleman. Mikell was called for unnecessary roughness on a defenseless receiver.
Watch the replay enough and it becomes clear to me: Quintin Mikell put a shoulder into Collie, which pin-balled him sideways into a helmet-to-helmet hit from Kurt Coleman that seemed simply unavoidable. But Mikell was called for unnecessary roughness on a defenseless receiver.

“No, it didn’t look like intent,” said Aaron Francisco, who has started at free safety for Indianapolis since both Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt got hurt. “When a player gets hit by two guys, not really simultaneously but one after another, it’s kind of hard as a defensive back to keep your head out of the way. That guy is getting hit towards you, you don’t know where his head is going to be or whatever.

They have so many rules out there, it’s tough to be a hitter nowadays, you know what I mean?"

Said cornerback Jacob Lacey: “It was a football play, it looked like a clean hit. You don’t wish that on anybody, or want anybody to be hurt or anything like that. But it looked like a clean hit. The first guy kind of gave him that momentum to swing into the other guy.”

After Collie was down on his back for an extended period of time, he was secured to a backboard that was wheeled off the field. Peyton Manning ran over to tell him everyone was praying for him.

“You hate to see that,” Manning said. “Coach [Jim] Caldwell told us early it was a concussion, which you don’t like to hear but it’s certainly better news that what everybody feared at that point.”

I interpreted replays as showing that Collie made a catch and had started to run with possession, which he lost when he was hit. But he was ruled defenseless and the pass was called incomplete.

Referee Carl Cheffers and back judge Todd Prukop told a pool reporter that the call should have been against Coleman, not Mikell but otherwise stood by the interpretation on the field. I suspect their bosses will feel differently with the benefit of video.

What the officials said in the pool report served to further complicate, rather than clarify, what unfolded.

Cheffers was asked about the definition of a defenseless receiver.

“Well, if he’s completing the catch, his second foot is not down yet or it’s just down, we still give the defenseless receiver protection,” Cheffers said. “So, if it is a bang-bang type play, with his second foot coming down, he still gets protection on that play. The fact of the matter is, is that the ball was incomplete.

“So, he has protection throughout that entire process on that play because we don’t even have a completion -- at no time did he has possession and become a runner to where he would have transitioned out of being a defenseless receiver.”

Prukop further complicated things with this answer to what was the cause for the penalty call against Coleman: “So, he makes contact with the shoulder to the back of the helmet of the receiver.” Which is what Mikell did, not Coleman.

Colts coach Caldwell said he thought there was “no question” that the proper call was made and that he was optimistic about Collie’s recovery. He just returned from thumb surgery suffered Oct. 17 at Washington that kept him out of last week’s win over Houston.

“I think he’ll recover quickly,” Caldwell said. “He’ll do OK.”