AFC South: Alex Smith

INDIANAPOLIS -- It only took two playoff games -- or a handful of plays if you really want to narrow it down -- to see an area the Indianapolis Colts needed to address in the offseason.

You had your options to choose from.

Quarterback Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs offense, without running back Jamaal Charles, scoring 44 points against them in the playoffs. Then there was New England running back LeGarrette Blount running over the Colts for 166 yards the following week.

[+] EnlargeD'Qwell Jackson
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsThe Colts will look to D'Qwell Jackson to bolster the middle of the defense in 2014.
Putting all the pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck's 24-year-old shoulders is the last thing the Colts want, even if his ability for the dramatic comebacks make for good television.

That’s why it’s not surprising the Colts' first free agent signing was on defense. Indianapolis agreed to a four-year, $22-million deal that includes $11 million guaranteed with former Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on Thursday.

Jackson has had at least 100 tackles in five of his seven NFL seasons.

The Colts didn’t get Jackson to come in and compete for the starting inside linebacker spot alongside Jerrell Freeman. They want Jackson to start. That should not be a problem since Pat Angerer, the starter there most of last season, won’t be back.

Jackson was rated as the NFL’s 42nd best inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus last season. He has played in a 4-3 and 3-4 scheme, but he’s viewed as a better 4-3 inside linebacker. Only time will tell if the 30-year-old Jackson can flip that thought process around since Colts coach Chuck Pagano runs a 3-4 scheme. Jackson played in a 3-4 scheme with the Browns last season when he had 141 tackles.

The Colts held their opponents to a combined 20 points, forced eight turnovers, and had 11 sacks during a three-game winning streak at the end of the regular season.

But two of those teams -- Houston and Jacksonville -- have the No. 1 and 3 picks, respectively, in the NFL draft this year. A real indication came against the Chiefs (513 total yards) and Patriots (234 rushing yards) in the playoffs.

The Colts finished 20th in the league overall and 26th against stopping the run last season, which is why Jackson’s signing is just a start.

“We certainly had times during the season where we played very, very good defense. Played smothering defense, especially down the stretch,” Pagano said during the NFL scouting combine last month. “I know the playoffs didn’t turn out, obviously we didn’t play like we are capable of. We’ve just got to be more consistent. As we add pieces to the puzzle and guys get better at their craft, I think we’ll certainly one day say we play defense like [Seattle] on a consistent basis.”

Re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis still sits at the top of the Colts’ priority list for their own players. Safety Antoine Bethea is also a free agent and getting a wide body at nose tackle to help clog up the middle of the line is an option, too.

The process in improving the defense started Thursday for the Colts. Now they have to keep going.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Kansas City Chiefs' 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: The 2013 Chiefs are among history's most infamous playoff teams. The Chiefs led 38-10 early in Saturday's third quarter before an epic collapse. The blown lead of 28 points is the second-biggest in NFL playoff history, behind the 32-point margin coughed up by the Houston Oilers against the Buffalo Bills in 1993. The Chiefs lost their eighth consecutive playoff game in a streak dating back 20 years.

Stock watch: Quarterback Alex Smith set a franchise record for touchdown passes with four. The touchdowns went to four different receivers. Joe Montana held the old record of three, in Kansas City's most recent playoff victory, in January 1994 against the Oilers. But Smith lost a fumble in the third quarter with the Chiefs ahead 38-17, and it led to an Indianapolis touchdown. Wide receiver Donnie Avery left the game late in the first half with a concussion and caught only one pass, a 79-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Chiefs a 17-7 lead, their first double-digit advantage of the game. They never led by fewer than 10 points until the fourth quarter. Outside linebacker Justin Houston had a sack and a fumble recovery in his first game since suffering a dislocated elbow Nov. 24 against San Diego. Nickel safety Husain Abdullah had two interceptions. After missing the potential game-winning field goal attempt in the final seconds of Sunday's game in San Diego, Ryan Succop made all three of his tries.

Concussion for Charles: The Chiefs lost running back Jamaal Charles on their first possession with a concussion; they still scored a franchise record for points in a playoff game without him. His backup, rookie Knile Davis, scored on a 4-yard run in the second quarter and a 10-yard catch in the third quarter. Davis left the game with a knee injury in the fourth quarter, leaving Cyrus Gray and Dexter McCluster to finish the game at running back. The Chiefs also lost starting cornerback Brandon Flowers to a concussion. Houston injured his leg late in the game and did not return.

What's next: The Chiefs lost five of their final seven regular-season games before collapsing against the Colts.
INDIANAPOLIS -- We’ve all witnessed Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's ability to strap his team on his back and lead it to come-from-behind victories during his first two NFL seasons.

Luck has developed a nice continuity with young receivers Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen to go with T.Y. Hilton in recent weeks.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
AP Photo/Ric TapiaRobert Mathis and the Colts have allowed just 20 total points over their past three games.
Luck, however, is not the reason behind the Colts’ three-game winning streak. Don't get me wrong, Luck has been good, but you have to look at the defense when it comes to giving credit to the team’s recent success.

The Colts head into Saturday’s wild-card playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs having forced eight turnovers and feasting on opposing quarterbacks like they’re at a buffet, registering 12 sacks in their three-game winning streak.

“Accountability. No personnel shifts. No change in schemes. No world-changing type of deals. It’s just holding guys accountable,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “If you’re not doing your job, you’re going to be called out within ourselves, not in the media or anything like that. It’s guys being accountable.”

The Colts have given up an average of 6.7 points, 292 yards and 24.3 percent on third down in the past three games.

Those numbers are a drastic change from when they were giving up big plays, a lot of yards and a lot of points prior to the winning streak.

The Colts went through a six-game stretch where they gave up an average of 30.8 points, 397 yards, including three games of at least 410 yards, and opponents converted 46.9 percent of third-down opportunities. The defensive players didn’t trust each other, forcing too many players to try to do too much by themselves.

“I just think any time you give up a long run, a big pass in the secondary or whatever, a big pass play, it’s just all the guys have to be on the same page,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Everybody has got to do their job. It only takes one breakdown. Ten guys can be doing exactly the right thing, and one guy could be not on the same page.”

Indianapolis sacked Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith five times and forced four turnovers in its victory against the Chiefs on Dec. 22.

The defense should be relatively healthy Saturday, as defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and defensive end Fili Moala (knee) are the only two players listed as questionable for the game.

“To be a good defense, you got to get turnovers,” Mathis said. “That’s one of the foundations of being a good defense, getting the ball into your quarterback’s hands. And we have a quarterback that can do some good things with it. So to be able to wrestle the ball away from the offense and get those extra possessions, it helps our team tremendously.”


Something will have to give when the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs meet in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.

The Chiefs have lost seven straight playoff games, tying them for the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history. The Colts have lost three straight wild-card playoff games.

This is the second time the teams will meet in a three-game period. The Colts, who are on a three-game winning streak, beat the Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 22.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher break down the matchup.

Teicher: The Colts were wobbling coming into Kansas City a couple of weeks ago but seem to have righted themselves that day. What can you point to as the reasons?

Wells: Most fans would say it's because of quarterback Andrew Luck. Don't get me wrong, Luck has been as good as expected, but the change has been led by the defense. The Colts have 12 sacks and have forced eight turnovers, including four against the Chiefs in Week 16, during their three-game winning streak. That's where Luck and the offense come in. You give Luck a short field to work with, and the odds are pretty good that he'll lead the Colts to a score. They scored a quick 17 points in the first quarter against Jacksonville last week.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid decided to rest most of his starters against San Diego in the finale. Do you think that was the right thing to do?

Teicher: Undoubtedly. The Chiefs didn’t get a bye in the playoffs, but Reid created one for eight defensive and seven offensive starters who didn’t play against the Chargers. I would expect that to be reflected in how those guys play against the Colts. Momentum going into the playoffs is overrated. The NFL is such a week-to-week deal that it’s almost impossible for a team to carry anything over from one game to the next, and even at that, the starters were able to get in some practice time last week. Not that this is a huge thing with the playoffs beginning, but the Chiefs got a good look at some of their backups under game conditions against an opponent that needed to win. In several cases, they liked what they saw.

Donald Brown was the Colts’ playmaker against the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago. He obviously is fast and has more power than you would think by looking at him. Why don’t the Colts use him more as their featured back and why did they trade for Trent Richardson?

Wells: Brown took over the starting spot from Richardson against Tennessee on Dec. 1 because Richardson was having a difficult time finding a rhythm. I still think the Colts made the right move in trading for Richardson, because Brown has been inconsistent for most of his five seasons with the Colts up until now. Richardson is still the future for the Colts; they have no intention of parting ways with him after the season. They still envision him and Luck having a great future together. And Brown said it best earlier this week, “There are only a handful of teams that only use one running back. We’re going to need two, three running backs to get through the playoffs.”

Speaking of running backs, it looked like Jamaal Charles was going to have a huge game against the Colts (not that 106 yards is a bad game) after the first series. He ended up with only 13 carries. How come the team’s best player didn’t have more carries or more catches, for that matter?

Teicher: Reid messed up that one and he beat himself up for it afterward. You can count on that not happening again this time around. Charles was given the ball 18 times (13 carries, five receptions) against the Colts two weeks ago. That actually wasn’t a season low for him. He had 16 touches (and a monster game) the week before in Oakland and 18 touches in two other games (both Chiefs losses). Another thing to remember is the Chiefs had only 53 offensive plays against the Colts, their second-lowest total of the season. They didn’t have the normal amount of opportunities to get him the ball. But whether or not the Chiefs have a limited amount of snaps on Saturday, they will get him the ball more often. He’s their best offensive player, so they’re making a huge mistake if they don’t.

Linebacker Jerrell Freeman is another player who had a big game for the Colts when they played against the Chiefs. Has he had other games like that this season? Give us a little scouting report on his strengths and weaknesses.

Wells: You have to credit Colts general manager Ryan Grigson for finding Freeman. Grigson is known for finding players in different parts of the world. He’d probably go to Antarctica to scout if there were a football team there. Freeman is a former Canadian Football League player. He led the Colts in tackles as a rookie and would be the team’s defensive MVP if not for a player named Robert Mathis. Freeman reached double figures in tackles in 12 of the 16 games this season. He has no problem being matched up against a running back out of the backfield, a tight end or even a wide receiver if he has to, because he’s athletic enough to defend them. An argument could be made that Freeman deserved a Pro Bowl nod.

This is not a knock against Charles, but how come the Chiefs had a running back lead them in receiving this season? I would have said Dwayne Bowe led them in receiving if you asked me to take a guess on their leading receiver this season.

Teicher: It’s a number of factors. The Chiefs wanted to use Charles more in the open field and get him in favorable one-on-one matchups, and it’s easier to do that by throwing him the ball. Ideally, the Chiefs would go down the field to their wide receivers more often, but Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster haven’t been able to get open consistently and have delivered few plays. Quarterback Alex Smith has tended to do the safe thing and opt for the checkdown to Charles rather than take a chance down the field. It’s something the Chiefs will need to correct next season. They’ll find another receiver or two in the draft or through free agency.

Colts deliver a much-needed message

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
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Chuck PaganoAP Photo/Charlie RiedelChuck Pagano's Colts had an all-around performance that says they could make a deep playoff run.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The record indicates they're a playoff team. They're also a team with the types of cracks in it that make it vulnerable.

The Indianapolis Colts beat up on teams that will be sitting on a Caribbean beach sipping fruity umbrella drinks at this time in less than two weeks. But their résumé had a void in it that had been sitting there for more than two months.

The Colts hadn’t defeated a team with a winning record since knocking off Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in late October. The gap -- seven weeks to be exact -- left plenty of deserving questions on whether the Colts could be more than a one-and-done team in the playoffs.

The Colts knew it, too, despite not wanting to publicly acknowledge it. They ended up letting their actions speak for them when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 in a possible playoff preview.

And what made the win even better is that the Colts did it on the road, in the frigid Kansas City air and while dealing with some of the loudest fans in the NFL at Arrowhead Stadium.

“Coming to a place like this ... it’s hard to win at Arrowhead ... tough team, playoff team, it’s a great team,” Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. “To come get a victory on the road, get that confidence, showing ourselves and the rest of the world that we can go on the road because we’re probably going to have to go on the road in the playoffs [at some point].”

Chalk Kansas City up alongside San Francisco, Seattle and Denver as playoff teams that the Colts have beaten this season.

But what happened on Sunday was something that hadn’t since Indianapolis beat the 49ers in Week 3. The Colts put on an all-around performance, the type that says they won't be an easy out in the playoffs.

Coach Chuck Pagano could have passed out game balls to almost every player in the locker room because almost all of them did something to contribute on offense, defense and special teams at some point.

The offensive line -- the seventh different starting group of the season -- gave up only one sack and helped the Colts rush for 135 yards. The defense made a Chiefs team that averaged 44 points in the four games prior look ordinary. Even receiver-turned-special-teams player Darrius Heyward-Bey had a presence.

“This team in a hostile environment with the elements as they were, it speaks to the character of our football team, of our players,” Pagano said. “They stick to the process and stay focused on that process. That means not getting ahead of ourselves, staying humble, staying grounded.”

The thought of laying back and not showing their complete hand was not on Pagano's mind, despite the possibility of these two teams facing each other again at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in two weeks. The Colts aren't a good enough team that can coast and suddenly think they can turn it on.

It was all about sending a message for Indianapolis. It started with containing Chiefs do-everything running back Jamaal Charles. The Colts already had horrible flashbacks of Charles rushing for 226 yards against them last season. Then Charles had five touchdowns and 195 receiving yards against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 15.

A repeat performance seemed like a possibility when Charles ran for 37 yards on the Chiefs’ opening drive.

But the Colts turned into the opportunistic defense that created turnovers against Tennessee and Houston in recent weeks.

Charles, public enemy No. 1, according to Pagano, gained only 69 more yards on the ground the rest of the game.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith and Bjoern Werner
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsThe Colts' defense harassed Alex Smith all day, sacking him four times and intercepting him twice.
“We know Jamaal is going to get his touches, we know he’s going to make his plays,” Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. “We had to settle down, stay in our gaps and control the line of scrimmage. This game was going to be won in the trenches.”

With Charles tamed, the Colts were able to zero in on Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. They sacked him four times and intercepted him twice.

The best part about the four sacks?

Not one came from league-leader Robert Mathis. That’s substantial considering that the Colts went into Sunday with Mathis having 13 more sacks than the next closest player on the roster.

Mathis’ presence was felt, though. He hit Smith’s arm on a pass attempt Freeman intercepted.

In the past two games, the Colts have eight sacks, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and they’ve given up only 10 points.

“It’s a long season and you can harp on one game, harp on another game, but like I said, we’ve always believed in this room what type of talent we have, what type of football we can play and the biggest thing for us, playing that style of football at the right time,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “Last week we had a good performance, this week we had another good performance in a playoff atmosphere.”

Rapid Reaction: Indianapolis Colts

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A few quick thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 23-7 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

What it means: No offense to Houston and Tennessee, but what the Colts did defensively to the Chiefs surpasses anything they did against those vacation-bound teams. The Colts sacked Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith four times to go with two Jerrell Freeman interceptions in their first victory over a team with a winning record since beating Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Oct. 20. The Chiefs looked like they were going to have a field day on the Colts after they took their opening possession and running back Jamaal Charles easily scored on a 31-yard run. Kansas City gained 59 yards on its opening drive but gained only 228 more yards the rest of the game.

Impressive performance by the line: The Colts started their seventh different offensive line, including their fifth in the past five games, on Sunday. The tackles were Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, the guards were Mike McGlynn and Xavier Nixon and the center was Samson Satele. Problems? Of course not. The line only gave up one sack, and the Colts rushed for 135 yards. Nixon, starting in place of Hugh Thornton, had a nice lead block that opened up the middle for running back Donald Brown on his 51-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Redding leaves early: About the only thing that didn’t go right for the defense after its first series was that defensive lineman Cory Redding left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

Whalen steps up again: You would have never known that receiver Griff Whalen was on the practice squad just nine days ago based off how he’s played the past two games. He followed up his touchdown catch against Houston on Dec. 15 by getting seven catches for 80 yards on Sunday.

What’s next: The Colts wrap up the regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 29. The Colts beat the Jaguars 37-3 in Week 4.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts didn’t need to watch last weekend’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland to realize how good of a player Chiefs running Jamaal Charles is.

All Colts coach Chuck Pagano and his staff had to do was look at the film of last season’s game between the Chiefs and Colts.

Charles ran for 226 yards on 22 carries against the Colts in the December 2012 meeting. The Colts have more than Charles’ running ability to worry about this time around. He’s also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.

[+] EnlargeJamaal Charles
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertThe Colts are determined to limit the damage Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles can inflict against them on Sunday.
Charles had eight catches for 195 yards and four touchdowns against Oakland. His four touchdown receptions were for 49, 39, 16 and 71 yards. ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher noted that Charles had 165 yards after the catch on those plays, three of which were screen passes. Charles also added a touchdown on the ground.

Now Charles is about to become the Colts’ headache.

“He drives the bus,” Pagano said. “Quarterback is the guy, but everything goes through him. The guy is first and foremost Public Enemy No. 1. We got to do a great job, and we better know where he’s at all times.”

Charles would have a chance to be the league’s MVP this season if not for some guy named Peyton Manning in Denver. ESPN.com reporter Dan Graziano has Charles third behind Manning and Seattle’s Russell Wilson in this week’s MVP watch.

Charles leads in the league in touchdowns with 18 (11 rushing and 7 receiving) he’s third in the league in rushing (1,181) and he also has 65 catches for another 655 yards. He’s accounted for 37 percent of the Chiefs’ yards from scrimmage this season, according to ESPNStatsInfo.

“Explosive. Problem. Mismatch,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “It takes all 11 guys. We have to know where he is at all times.You cannot lose track of him at any down because he can make you pay running the ball, passing the ball, whatever the case may be. He can make you pay.”

Charles has rushed for less than 70 yards in a game only three times this season. The Colts, who have used a two-back system most of the season, have only had a running back gain more than 70 yards in a game twice this season.

"The guy’s out there for every situation," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "You don’t find that very often in the NFL. A guy who can be out there on first and second down. He can be out there on third down. He can be out there on short yardage and goal line. And he’s valuable in all of them, it really speaks to his versatility. It speaks to his mental capacity and his preparation that he’s able to stay out there for all those, because there’s not many backs that do. And then he’s a weapon in all those situations."

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 7

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 17-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Defensive effort: For the previous six games, the Texans' defense had limited its yards allowed, but failed to force more turnovers than the Texans' offense gave up. On Sunday the Texans won their turnover battle for the first time all season, but the defense also gave up more than 300 yards for the first time all season. The defense was better late than early. Houston allowed two touchdown drives in the first half, but only a field goal in the second. And it was finally in the second half that they got to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cushing
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaBrian Cushing hasn't lost his fierce attitude following his latest season-ending injury.
More on Brian Cushing: After suffering a season-ending injury, Cushing tweeted this: "It's not how many times you fall down but how many times you get back up. Life is tough but I'm the toughest SOB it's ever seen. Ill be back"

There are times when back-to-back knee injuries can turn a team off, but this isn't likely to be one of them. First, it's an injury to a different part of the knee, not the anterior cruciate ligament that Cushing tore last year. Cushing is the kind of player to whom you give the benefit of the doubt because of his work ethic, ability and stature on the team. The Texans have no financial reason to part ways with Cushing, either. They've guaranteed his contract -- the six-year extension he signed in September -- for injury through the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Not every low hit is dirty: Worth noting, there was no bad blood after the game between Cushing and Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, whose helmet to Cushing's knee caused the injury. Conversely, Cushing and his teammates were furious last season when Matt Slauson's illegal peel-back block caused Cushing's torn ACL. Not every low hit is dirty, but sometimes players forget that when caught in the emotion of losing a teammate. That wasn't the case this time.

The fake to nobody: It was a head-scratching play. Smith turned to hand the ball off, but he turned in a spot where nobody appeared as the Texans' defense watched. Then Smith tucked the ball and ran 5 yards for a touchdown. Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star talked with Charles, who admitted he goofed on the play. He simply forgot which way he was supposed to go. Here's Smith on what he was thinking as the play unfolded: "Getting the defensive end to pause and then hitting the hole."
Michael GriffinAP Photo/Wade PayneBernard Pollard (31) has been critical of the league's protection for quarterbacks but offered a calm assessment of the call that changed the game against Kansas City.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fans were outraged. The Twitterverse bemoaned the call. The LP Field crowd booed the officials the rest of the game.

On a third-and-5 from the Tennessee 44-yard line, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith scrambled to the right sideline. It looked like he was heading out of bounds. Middle linebacker Moise Fokou made sure Smith went out, launching and putting a shoulder into Smith that drew the flag.

Instead of fourth-and-3 the Chiefs got the two yards on the scramble and 15 more for unnecessary roughness. Five plays later, the Chiefs had retaken the lead for good en route to a 26-17 victory that kept them undefeated and dropped the Titans to 3-2.

Outspoken Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard has been critical of the league’s protection for offenses and quarterbacks. Pollard -- a guy who recently said the NFL should pull defenses off the field, let offenses play against air and see what the television ratings would be like -- would surely offer a strong objection to a crucial unnecessary roughness call against a teammate, right?

“It’s a gray area,” Pollard said. “It’s something I think needs to be corrected in the rules, because it’s hard for us as defensive players. Having said that, look at the situation we were in. You’ve got to let that go. The guy was two yards shy. But we make mistakes. That hurt us, when you keep drives going with penalties.”

Fokou was less sure it was wrong, but wasn’t defensive about it either.

“The officials felt what I did was probably a penalty,” he said. “I’ll have to go back and look, I feel like our sideline thought it wasn’t. It’s one of those things, when you’re battling and playing hard, going full speed, things happen.”

“I thought I was in a good position, you just never know. … You try to defend every blade of grass. When I looked at it, I thought he was still in. I left my feet and I don’t know how to stop mid-air.”

In his post-game press conference Titans coach Mike Munchak said he thought Smith was in bounds and Fokou was trying to make sure he didn’t get a first down. There are inconsistencies in the way it’s called, Munchak said, but the Titans know the boundary call is going to be closely inspected and the team has to be smart there.

I talked to Pollard, Fokou, defensive tackles Mike Martin and Jurrell Casey, cornerback Alterraun Verner, safety George Wilson, left tackle Michael Roos and Rob Turner about the call.

All but one of those eight basically said the call is to be expected and a defender has to avoid it.

“We’ve just got to be better at playing smarter football,” Martin said. “When it comes down to plays like that, you can’t leave it in the referee’s hands.”

“They are going to call that pretty much every time,” Roos said. “They have to, they protect the quarterback. That’s unfortunate. It is the way it is. At some point in our season I’m sure we’ll get a call like that in our favor. That’s the way it goes.”

Munchak has spoken to his team on multiple occasions about the body language involved in getting called for penalties -- both by the player that gets whistled and by the victim. There are times when a player is on the verge of committing a hold or is committing one, where he can let go, not really impact the play and earn more benefit of the doubt.

Verner felt referee Bill Voinovich was left too much room for interpretation.

“We discuss that if it’s close the referee could or could not call it,” Verner said. “Of course I am going to say that Smith was still in, but it was one of those that was close. So the referee had a decision to make. It could have gone either way.”

Only Turner spelled out a real case against the call, and he did so in a calm, understanding way, not in an angry, my-team-got-screwed manner.

“Alex Smith was trying to accumulate a first down,” Turner said. “When he hit him, he didn’t lead with the head, he led with the shoulder. He didn’t target the head. Alex had not stepped out of bounds when he made contact. Now he hit him as his foot came down, but again, he was trying to get a first down.

“I’m not going to sit here and criticize the ref. From my viewpoint, what I saw on the replay, I thought it as a questionable call. ... I don’t feel like he did anything wrong on that, he made a good play playing within the rules.”

If Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson hit Ryan Fitzpatrick in a similar fashion, I suspect the Titans would have felt it worthy of a penalty.

I’ve never been a world-class athlete chasing a quarterback to the boundary in an NFL game at full speed with a major first down at stake. Still, I’d propose a strong push or shove is going to ensure the quarterback goes out of bounds and significantly reduce the risk of a penalty. Stay on your feet, keep your head up and hit him with an extended arm, not even a shoulder.

If you do that and the call goes against you, they’ll be a lot more than public outcry to back you.

Give the crew gray area, it’s going to go to the quarterback’s side. Grumpy fans need to come to terms with that. It’s pro football circa 2013.
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Mailbag: Getting Chiefs off rhythm

October, 5, 2013
10/05/13
11:06
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Time for the weekly dip into Twitter questions. Thanks to all contributors.

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Chris Johnson, Dontari PoeAP Photo With Jake Locker out, Chris Johnson,left, may see his workload increase. It'll be up to Dontari Poe and the Kansas City defense to contain him.
Raise your hand if you figured a Week 5 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans in Nashville would feature teams with a combined 7-1 record.

If your hand is up, you’re likely fibbing.

In his first season in Kansas City, Andy Reid has already doubled last season’s win total. In his third season as the head coach of the Titans, Mike Munchak appears to have a revamped team on a good course.

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher discuss the teams they cover in advance of the game.

Teicher: Jake Locker was obviously playing well but he won’t be available to the Titans on Sunday. What do the Titans lose without him in their lineup and how will their offense change, if it does, with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?

Kuharsky: Well, they won't have him running around as much, though he’s more mobile than one might think. But they haven't used Locker on bootlegs and roll outs so much as they might eventually, as they've been going against 3-4s. They moved away from Matt Hasselbeck in March as he was too expensive for a backup, and they were eyeing Fitzpatrick as they made that move. He’s a smart guy, obviously, and has been a good resource for Locker. He entered the Jets game with the Titans holding a big lead and he said his job was simply not to screw it up. He knows his job changes now for however long Locker is out. Fitzpatrick wasn't on a good team in Buffalo, but he turned the ball over way too much. The Titans are 3-1 in large part because they have not turned the ball over at all yet. The Titans are confident in their system and that Fitzpatrick will be able to keep the trend going.

Alex Smith is a minimal-mistake guy, too. How conservative has he been in Reid's offense?

Teicher: Smith opened things up a little more, went downfield a little more against the Giants on Sunday. Most of their long pass plays from the first three games had been of the catch-and-run type, but he has completed some passes down the field. The Chiefs actually have more pass plays of 20 or more yards (14) than their opponents (10). Smith threw his first two interceptions of the season Sunday, but you could argue that neither one was his fault. On the first, Dwayne Bowe ran a lazy slant route and allowed the cornerback to cut in front and make the catch instead. The other interception was deflected by Jamaal Charles, who accidentally kicked it straight to a defender. The throw wasn't a great one, it was slightly behind Charles, but the interception wasn't Smith’s fault. Going down the field a lot doesn't play to Smith’s strengths. He doesn't throw a great deep ball. His strengths are good decision-making and accuracy on shorter routes.

Big plays have hurt the Chiefs in the running game, but Chris Johnson is averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. Is he still capable of exploiting KC’s run defense or are his best days behind him?

Kuharsky: He's definitely still capable of stellar runs. The Titans have faced some stiff run defenses, particularly in Pittsburgh and against the Jets. They rebuilt the interior of the offensive line, but the new threesome hasn't jelled as quickly as they may have expected. And Johnson will benefit from surrendering some carries to the bigger, better-in-short-yardage Shonn Greene, but Greene's been out since early in the opener with a knee injury that required a scope. He could return this week. Tennessee has run it 55 percent of the time, and Fitzpatrick and the Titans could look for that to go up.

Charles isn't just the Chiefs' top rusher, he's their top receiver. If the Titans can control him, how much will they improve their chances?

Teicher: A lot. In the passing game, no other receiver has stepped forward as a consistent threat for the Chiefs. Bowe has scored a couple of touchdowns, but otherwise, his numbers are way down. He’s just not getting open a lot. The other starting wide receiver, Donnie Avery, had a big game against the Eagles in Philadelphia but has otherwise produced little. Likewise, Dexter McCluster had a nice game last week against the Giants, but otherwise has given them almost nothing. The Chiefs are hurting at tight end. Of their top three tight ends at training camp, one is out for the season while the other two are injured and didn't play last week. In the running game, the Chiefs don’t trust anyone but Charles. They drafted Knile Davis in the third round this year, but between fumbles, lining up in the wrong place and running the wrong play, they can’t count on him for much.

The Titans are a lot like the Chiefs in that they are living off a nice turnover differential. The teams are tied for the league lead at plus-9. What’s it going to look like for the Titans when that begins to balance out?

Kuharsky: Not only are the Titans tied with Kansas City with the league-best plus-9, but Tennessee's plus-9 includes zero giveaways. Odds are this team is due to lose a fumble or throw a pick, and Fitzpatrick is more likely to get picked off than Locker, though he should be less inclined to force anything in this system than when he was pressing in Buffalo. But this is a big piece of what they want to do -- play mistake-free and capitalize on mistakes they help prompt.

Looking at the stats, I see the Chiefs are giving up 5.4 rushing yards a clip. Johnson once ran a mile for a touchdown at Arrowhead and then played the drums he found on the sideline to celebrate. Defensively, what's the best plan of attack for the Titans' offense?

Teicher: He played the drums well, too, as I recall. The Titans need to be patient with the running game. They need to stay with it even if they get behind early or it isn’t working well. If they give up on it early, it’s probably going to be a long day for Fitzpatrick and the offense because the Chiefs are relentless in getting after the passer. They have the players and the schemes to make it work, so the last thing Tennessee needs to do is drop-back the quarterback a bunch of times. Though their season stats look ugly, the Chiefs had only one game where their rushing defense stats were completely out of whack. Philadelphia rushed for 264 yards on 27 carries, but Michael Vick accounted for a lot of that. The Chiefs have allowed 11 runs of 10 or more yards and six were in that game. Their longest run allowed in the other three games is 15 yards. But that’s still the best plan of attack for the Titans.

The Titans haven’t received as much attention for the way they’ve played on defense, but they’ve got a lot of guys playing well on that side of the ball. Who are some of the defensive players the Chiefs need to make sure they account for in the running game and the passing game?

Kuharsky: A guy who's probably remembered by Chiefs fans, safety Bernard Pollard, is the defensive tone-setter. The Titans have managed to keep him out of coverage situations downfield, which are not his strength. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is a really good, disruptive rusher and effective run-stopper who rates as the best player on defense. Zach Brown is a speedy weakside 'backer who's gotten to the quarterback. And cornerback Alterraun Verner has more takeaways than anyone in the league with four picks and two fumble recoveries. They wondered if he'd be good enough playing more man-press, which they're going to more often. He's been great.

Same question to you. We know Justin Houston's got 7.5 sacks and Eric Berry is a very good safety. Who else keys that defense?

Teicher: They have a lot of guys playing well on defense. Dontari Poe, their nose tackle, has been outstanding. He’s providing some consistent push in the pass rush they haven’t had from the middle of their line in a long time. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is playing as well as he ever has. The other outside linebacker, Tamba Hali, had a big game against the Giants with a couple of sacks and a forced fumble. The corners, Sean Smith and Brandon Flowers, have mostly held up well. Dez Bryant of Dallas had a big game against Flowers. He has a sore knee that prevented him from playing Sunday and could be trouble for him again this week. A rookie, Marcus Cooper, filled in nicely for Flowers. A lot of their players seem to have taken to the pressure system put in by new coordinator Bob Sutton.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- New season, same trouble for the Jacksonville Jaguars' pass rush.


The Jaguars were unable to get much pressure on Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who had and efficient day in completing 21 of 34 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. The Jaguars sacked him once, but hit him just four times.

Four times in 34 dropbacks, and that includes once by safety John Cyprien on a blitz.

The Chiefs do run the West Coast offense, which stresses shorter, quicker passes, which is why the Jaguars were unable to get much pressure, defensive end Jeremy Mincey said.

"It was a dink and dunk game," Mincey said. "It wasn’t long, stretchy plays down the field. He wasn’t sitting back there all day. He made some plays where he eluded and got out of the pocket, but we had to get him to make him elude, so pretty solid but it could always be better."

However, the Chiefs did have four pass plays of 15 or more yards -- including two deep middle passes that gained 21 and 16 yards, respectively. And Smith tried to hit tight end Anthony Fasano on a deep pass on their first offensive snap. So the Jaguars did have plenty of opportunities to get to him.

But like last season, when they were last in the league with 20 sacks, they were unable to except for defensive end Jason Babin's sack for minus-2 yards on the second play of the fourth quarter.

"Definitely not a good way to start, but we just got to focus on getting better," Mincey said.
Gud Bradley, Andy ReidAP PhotoGus Bradley and Andy Reid are looking to get off to fast starts with their new teams.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Fans know a lot about their favorite teams, but they don’t have the same depth of knowledge of the 31 other teams in the NFL. That’s not going to be a problem any longer.

Each week the NFL Nation writers will team up Q&A style to help you get a handle on each team. Today, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Jacksonville Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco help break down Sunday’s matchup.

Michael DiRocco: Is Alex Smith really an upgrade over Matt Cassel?

Adam Teicher: He had better be or the Chiefs are in some trouble. Cassel and Brady Quinn turned over the ball far too many times last season. One thing we know about Smith is that he hasn’t thrown many interceptions. He threw just 10 in his last 25 starts with the 49ers. So he’s been a quarterback who protects the ball, and if he can just do that, he’s already an upgrade over Cassel and Quinn. Another thing: Andy Reid’s West Coast offense will succeed if the quarterback completes a high percentage of throws. Smith completed 70 percent last season. If he can get close to that number this season, he’s even more of an upgrade.

Teicher: How patient will the Jaguars be with Blaine Gabbert on Sunday and this season?

DiRocco: This is a make-or-break season for Gabbert, who must prove he’s capable of being a franchise quarterback. That’s the team’s No. 1 goal for the season, so there will be a certain amount of patience. It does no good to give him a half or one game and yank him because the team will essentially be where it was heading into the season. That being said, if Gabbert really struggles during the first two months of the season, then the team will have its answer and may turn to Chad Henne or the recently signed Ricky Stanzi for the remainder of the season.

DiRocco: What’s the biggest change Andy Reid has brought to Kansas City?

Teicher: It’s a change brought by Reid and John Dorsey, the new general manager. Everybody seems to be pulling in the same direction. The Chiefs went through plenty of infighting the past few years and it was dragging them down. People often had their own agendas or felt they had to align themselves with one person or another. Dorsey and Reid swept that out the door. Winning looks to be the only goal and it certainly appears everybody is on board with that. Of course, it’s easy for a new administration to have everybody on board when it’s undefeated. So it’s an issue to keep an eye on once the Chiefs start losing some games.

Teicher: What are the biggest changes Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell have brought to the Jags?

DiRocco: On the field, it’s on defense, where Bradley is implementing a more aggressive attitude and trying to rebuild the secondary with bigger, more physical cornerbacks -- essentially what he did in Seattle. Off the field, Bradley and Caldwell have changed the culture in the locker room. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm around the franchise even though everyone knows that the talent level needs a significant upgrade and the team likely isn’t going to reach .500. It was a much-needed boost, because the atmosphere around the team the past few seasons under Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey had become somewhat stale.

DiRocco: Some NFL experts have pegged the Chiefs as a playoff team just one season after finishing 2-14. What are a few things that have to happen for that to become a reality?

Teicher: They have many good players, but from the GM to the coach to the coordinators to the offensive and defensive system to the quarterback to 29 other players who didn’t play for the Chiefs last season, there’s a lot new here. How quickly Reid and his staff can pull everything together will be a key. The Chiefs have a favorable schedule the first half of the season and they need to take advantage because it gets more difficult after that. On the field, the Chiefs have to fix a turnover differential that was minus-24 last season. Their defense and special teams have to do a better job of providing better field position for the offense. This offense won’t make a lot of big plays, and if it has to go 80 yards on every possession, it will be a struggle.

Teicher: What are realistic expectations for the Jags this season in terms of number of wins?

DiRocco: I kind of let that slip in my earlier answer, but a six-win season would be the best-case scenario for the Jaguars. Four or five victories seems more likely, though, especially considering the team has back-to-back road games on the West Coast, plays San Francisco in London, and has to play at Denver, Indianapolis and Houston.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- This is a make or break season for Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Either he proves he can be a consistent starter who could develop into a franchise quarterback or the Jaguars will give up on the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder and look for a quarterback in the draft.

The Jaguars took Gabbert with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft, believing he would become a quarterback that could lead the franchise to a Super Bowl. He obviously hasn’t developed the way the team had hoped, and entering his third season he has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes for 3,876 yards and 21 touchdowns with 17 interceptions.

His inconsistency -- in his 24 starts he has completed at least half of his passes 16 times (and also a 17th game in which was injured went 2-for-2) but has also had seven games in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes -- looks even worse when compared to the other 11 quarterbacks who were drafted in 2011.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesBlaine Gabbert is just 5-19 as the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
More importantly, his record as a starter is 5-19 (.208). That's the worst record among the 12 quarterbacks taken in the 2011 NFL draft. Six, including Gabbert, were taken in the first two rounds and those are the players against which he should be measured, so here’s a breakdown:

Cam Newton (No. 1 overall by Carolina): Newton had a fantastic first season, setting rookie records for passing yards (4,051) and rushing yards by a quarterback (706). Those numbers lasted only a season, though, as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III broke them last season. Newton is 13-19 as a starter after going 6-10 as a rookie and 7-9 last season. Career stats: 590-1,002-29, 7,920 yards, 40 TDs; 1,447 yards, 22 TDs rushing.

Jake Locker (No. 8 overall by Tennessee): Locker played in five games as a rookie but won the starting job entering last season. He missed five games and parts of two others because of two shoulder separations and led the Titans to a 4-7 record in the 11 games which he started. He completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,176 yards and 10 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 2012. Career stats: 211-380-11, 2,718, 14 TDs.

Christian Ponder (No. 12 overall by Minnesota): He started the final 10 games of his rookie season (going 2-8) but helped lead the Vikings to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth last season, though, he missed the playoff game with a deep triceps bruise. This, too, is a make-or-break season for Ponder. Career stats: 458-774-25, 4,788 yards, 31 TDs.

Andy Dalton (second round, No. 35 overall by Cincinnati): Dalton is by far the most successful quarterback of the group, having started every game the past two seasons and leading the Bengals to a 19-13 record and two playoff berths. Each season has ended with playoff losses to Houston, but it was the first time since 1981-82 the franchise has made back-to-back playoff appearances. Career stats: 629-1,044-29, 7,067 yards, 47 TDs.

Colin Kaepernick (second round, No. 36 overall by San Francisco): Kaepernick was a relative unknown until he replaced Alex Smith (concussion) in Week 10. He led the 49ers to a 5-2 record to close the regular season and playoff victories over Green Bay and Atlanta to reach the Super Bowl. He threw for 798 yards and four TDs and rushed for 264 yards and three TDs in the postseason. Career stats: 139-223-3, 1,849 yards, 10 TDs.

Here's a look at the other six:

Ryan Mallett (third round, No. 74 overall by New England): He has played in four games in two seasons in mop-up duty in relief of Tom Brady. He was the subject of trade rumors early in the preseason but remains with the Patriots. Career stats: 1-4-1, 17 yards.

Ricky Stanzi (fifth round, No. 135 overall): Spent two seasons with the Chiefs until being cut last week. He is now with the Jaguars as the No. 3 quarterback behind Gabbert and Chad Henne. He has never appeared in a game.

T.J. Yates (fifth round, No. 152 overall by Houston): He started the last five games of the regular season and two playoff games in 2011 when Matt Schaub was out with a Lisfranc injury. He led the Texans to a 3-4 record in those games, which included a 31-10 victory over Cincinnati in a wild-card game that was the first playoff victory in franchise history. Career stats: 86-144-4, 987 yards, 3 TDs.

Nathan Enderle (fifth round, No. 160 overall): He spent the 2011 season with the Bears but was waived after the season. He went to training camp with the Jaguars and spent time with Tennessee in the offseason. He signed with San Diego on July 31 and was among the Chargers cut last week. He has never appeared in a game.

Tyrod Taylor (sixth round, No. 180 overall): He has played in 10 games in relief of Joe Flacco. Career stats: 18-30-1, 197 yards.

Greg McElroy (seventh round, No. 208 overall): The former Alabama standout started one game for the New York Jets last season, going 14-for-24 for 185 yards with one interception in a 27-17 loss to San Diego. He was released earlier this week. Career numbers: 19-31-1, 214 yards, 1 TD.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans


Gary Kubiak liked what he saw from Manti Te’o, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

To which I say: Let’s remember how little a combine interview can mean in terms of the likelihood a team will draft a guy.

The odds of the Texans drafting a quarterback in the first three rounds are not good, says Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts


The Colts plan a special thank you for Dwight Freeney, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

What really matters to a watchful eye at the NFL scouting combine, from Phillip B. Wilson of the Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars’ second-round pick, 33rd overall, will be coveted by a lot of teams on the second day of the draft, writes Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

A deal is reportedly in place for the 49ers to trade quarterback Alex Smith. But the Jaguars aren’t the team getting him, writes O’Halloran.

A look at the Leo position in a Gus Bradley defense, from O’Halloran.

Tennessee Titans

Chris Johnson’s combine record 40-yard dash survived a day of some blazing sprints, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

The Titans used one of their 60 formal combine visits on Te’o.

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