AFC South: Andy Dalton

Jaguars vs. Bengals preview

October, 30, 2014
10/30/14
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So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.

One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.

Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.

Instead, they're back in first.

ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:

Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.

Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.

Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?

Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.

Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).

Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?

Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.

I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.

What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.

Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?

Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.

Titans vs. Bengals preview

September, 18, 2014
9/18/14
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The Tennessee Titans had trouble stopping the run last week when Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 167 yards in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Titans at LP Field.

The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.

All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:

Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?

Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.

Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.

Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?

Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.

The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.

They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.

Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?

Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.

As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.

Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?

Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.

The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.

What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?

Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.

Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.

How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?

Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.

Bengals mailbag: Jackson vs. Gruden

February, 8, 2014
2/08/14
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Last week's Cincinnati Bengals mailbag was heavy on free-agent talk, specifically the chatter as it pertained to defensive end Michael Johnson and potentially replacing him.

This week, we're going to put that on ice for now. We've been discussing "if-then" free agent scenarios all week and haven't had much time to discuss other rather pertinent news, such as the Bengals apparently embracing Hue Jackson as their new offensive coordinator.

Don't worry, we'll get to some of those other questions, but we're going to start this week's mailbag instead with a look at what the Bengals could be expecting with Jackson at the helm:

Colts win AFC South despite their flaws

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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ColtsAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck and the Colts have struggled against teams with a winning record recently.

CINCINNATI -- The Indianapolis Colts probably did a lot of score-checking on their phones as they made the 115-mile bus ride back home from Cincinnati.

They were about 30 minutes outside of Indianapolis when Peyton Manning, of all people, helped his former team win its first AFC South title in three years when the Denver Broncos beat the Tennessee Titans.

Winning the division deserves some handshakes and hugs when you think about all the injuries the Colts have dealt with on offense this season and that they were 2-14 two years ago. But there's some legitimate concern, too, after they needed help to wrap up the division.

The Colts went into Sunday's game against the Bengals wanting to take care of things on their own. They left Paul Brown Stadium after a 42-28 loss without easing any of the doubts about how the rest of the season could go for them.

“We wanted to win the game,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “Like we said before, if we took care of our business, we wouldn’t have to worry about anybody losing or anything of that nature. We want to go into December, into the playoffs on a hot roll.”

As important as it was for the Colts to beat the Bengals so that they could say they won the division on their own, it was even more important for them from the standpoint of proving they can beat a team with a winning record. The loss dropped Indianapolis to the No. 4 seed, a game behind the Bengals for the third seed.

The Colts are 3-3 in their past six games, with all three victories coming against teams with losing records -- all teams from the AFC South, the worst division in football.

Indianapolis hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record since knocking off Manning and the Broncos on Oct. 20. They were still considered a threat in the AFC when they went into that game seven weeks ago.

Not anymore.

They have too many flaws and not enough talent to make the same type of run they made in 2006. They’re wobbling toward the playoffs and look to be a one-and-done team when they get there.

“We try to measure ourselves every week,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “We’ll go back to work, and we’ll grind. We’ve got a resilient bunch, a tough-minded group. They don’t ever quit. They’re hurting right now, everybody is.”

So much was talked about referee Jeff Triplette's reversal on the Colts’ fourth-and-goal stop of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis at the 1-yard line, giving the Bengals a 14-0 lead with 74 seconds left in the first half.

Was it a bad call by Triplette? Yes.

Would the Colts have won the game if the call had not been reversed? No.

The Colts continued their trend of slow starts -- outscored 114-24 in the first half of the past six games -- but the defense couldn't come up with the necessary stops to get the offense back on the field.

The bend-but-don’t-break defense the Colts played earlier this season continues to break. Don’t be fooled by the four turnovers they forced against Tennessee on Dec. 1. The Titans aren’t in the same class as the Bengals or the Arizona Cardinals.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had all day to sit back in the pocket because the Colts barely got any pressure on him. Dalton threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns. Cincinnati also did what the Colts have wanted to do for weeks -- run the ball. They averaged 4.4 yards and rushed for 155 yards while going 6-of-12 on third down.

“We had our chances but didn’t capitalize,” Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. “At the end of the day, they made more plays than us. They caught all the deep passes, they had some good calls go their way. That’s pretty much how the game turned out. We have to find ways to get off the field on third down.”

Quarterback Andrew Luck found a couple of receivers to throw the ball to in Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill, but it won't matter the rest of the season if the defense can't stop anybody. The Colts have given up an average of 31 points and 401 yards per game and allowed opponents to convert 44 percent of their third-down opportunities in the past seven games.

“Back to the drawing board for us,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “It’s a work in progress. Everybody has a job to do, and we have to get it done.”

Double Coverage: Colts at Bengals

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
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Maualuga-BrownAP PhotoRey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals know the Indianapolis Colts will try to establish the running game with Donald Brown.
After holding off the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers last weekend, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals come into this Sunday's showdown with one another knowing the stakes have been raised.

Whichever division leader emerges victorious from Paul Brown Stadium will have the No. 3 playoff seeding, and most likely will retain it, barring a complete collapse across the final three weeks of the season. The only other reason they wouldn't retain the No. 3 seed? Because they would have the No. 2 seed. Currently, the New England Patriots have that.

Cincinnati could claim that this weekend with a win and a Patriots loss. The Bengals have a tiebreaker over New England after beating the Patriots in October.

Like Sunday's game, that one was in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 5-0 at home, providing an added layer of difficulty for the Colts. Why have the Bengals been so good there? How can the Colts prevent losing their No. 3 seed? ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Colts reporter Mike Wells have the answers to those questions and more.

Coley Harvey: Mike, there are so many different places I could go with this first question, but I really want to ask about the Colts’ rushing game. Bengals fans certainly were intrigued when the Trent Richardson trade deal went down earlier this season because they knew their team still had to face him this year, even if he was no longer playing for the division-rival Browns. He’s had a rough go of it in Indy, prompting Donald Brown’s start this past Sunday. Does Indianapolis believe Brown really is the back who will lead it through the postseason?

Mike Wells: The Colts hope the demotion will turn out to be a good thing for Richardson. I know that sounds crazy considering the Colts gave up a first-round pick to acquire Richardson. Not starting should ease some of the pressure on Richardson because he’s had a problem of overthinking since he joined the team. Brown may be the starter now, but coach Chuck Pagano will go with the hot hand during the game. So all it takes is a few big runs by Richardson and he’ll be back in the mix. The trade so far is completely in Cleveland’s favor, but this setback doesn’t mean the Colts are throwing in the towel on Richardson. They really can’t afford to when you think about all they gave up to acquire him. The Bengals have excelled at playing at home. What makes them a dangerous team there?

Harvey: That’s a good question. I’d say the weather has made them dangerous. The crowd has made them pretty dangerous, too. The reason I say the weather has made them dangerous is because twice this season, coach Marvin Lewis has been accurate in his prediction of what the weather would do. Back in early October, he smartly told his players to expect a sudden rain shower late in a game against the Patriots. A fourth-quarter monsoon came right when New England got the football for the last time and attempted a comeback drive. Tom Brady couldn’t complete a pass. The rains were too hard. Eventually, Adam Jones intercepted Brady with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a big early-season Cincinnati win. Against the Browns three weeks ago, Lewis also told his players not to worry about the possibility of a delay that some weathermen had predicted. He was right. The game went along mostly smoothly, and about an hour after play, a line of strong storms moved through the area.

In addition to the advantage “meteorologist” Marvin gives them, the Bengals have had a great lift from their fans. Every game has been a sellout, and has had some moment in it that sent the crowd into a frenzy that’s barely been seen since the team moved from the old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals are confident they’ll keep getting that energy the rest of the season.

Andrew Luck has played in some meaningful games already in his young career. Most notably this season, he gutted out a win during Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. Because of what’s at stake in Sunday’s game, how much confidence do you think Luck’s big-game play gives the Colts, Mike?

Wells: Luck will have to carry the Colts if they expect to go into Cincy and get the victory. The former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t have much to work with on offense now that veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is out for the season with the torn ACL. Opponents have found a way to slow T.Y. Hilton down lately by sending help over the top. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing what he can to help Luck out. I’m not even going to talk about receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running game can’t gain any traction and the offensive line has struggled this season. That leaves Luck having to improvise and do what he can to make things work. That won’t be an easy task since the Bengals have the sixth-best defense in the league. The Bengals probably like their chances at being able to sack Luck. He’s been sacked 29 times this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there seemed to be different stories floating around earlier this season that questioned whether Andy Dalton could win big games. Do you think he has the ability to take the Bengals to the next level?

Harvey: In all honesty, it’s tough to say, Mike. Dalton has been so inconsistent this season that it’s tough to actually believe he’ll be able to put this team on his back and be as successful as Luck has proven to be. That said, it looks like the Bengals learned something about Dalton and the rest of their offense in San Diego this past weekend. They discovered that with a little help from a solid running game, their passing game can actually produce big, explosive plays.

For a four-game stretch in October, Dalton looked like he would be able to make the Bengals an unbeatable force come the postseason. But since then, he hasn’t been as efficient and he hasn’t had the same type of prolific passing numbers. After throwing for more than 300 yards in four straight games in October, Dalton has hit the 200-yard mark just once since. Two games ago, against Cleveland, he didn’t even reach 100. If the Bengals are going to make noise in the playoffs, it’s probably not going to be because of Dalton. It most likely will be because of their defense.

Speaking of defenses, tell us about the Colts’ defense. What has contributed to its struggles this year, particularly against the run?

Wells: The Colts have struggled to stop the run all season -- 28th in the league -- and things may get worse for them. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his plantar fascia. Fili Moala will start in his place. Stopping the run is just one problem for Indianapolis. The secondary has also had a difficult time stopping teams from passing on them. It all started when cornerback Greg Toler went down five games ago with a groin injury. But the defense stepped up by forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tennessee on Sunday. And there’s a chance Toler will be back in the lineup this weekend. The rest of the secondary feeds off of Toler’s energy. It’s a perfect time for Toler to return because the Colts can use his help to try to slow down receiver A.J. Green, who is averaging 91.9 yards a game receiving.

Like Pagano, Marvin Lewis is a defensive coach. What makes the Bengals' defense so successful?

Harvey: It starts with the combination of Lewis' background and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The pair of defensive gurus have established quite the formidable two-headed monster for the Bengals, coming up with a slew of adjustments and lineup tweaks that has made the unit one of the best in the league, even when it maybe shouldn't be. Injuries have ravaged the Bengals' defense, most notably at defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) and cornerback (Leon Hall). The fact Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict has come on and had an unbelievably strong sophomore season has helped, too. The former undrafted free agent leads the NFL in tackles and played last week on a bad ankle. Because of his near-reckless style of play and the fact Zimmer's scheme has produced results, the Bengals believe in their system and that has made them successful.

Schedule favors Indianapolis Colts

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts will return to the practice Monday afternoon after coach Chuck Pagano gave his players the entire week off following their victory over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 20.

The Colts won't have receiver Reggie Wayne (knee) the rest of the season, but they're still in a good position to win the AFC South for the first time since 2010.

The Colts (5-2) have a two-game lead over the Tennessee Titans (3-4). They also have a favorable schedule the rest of the season. It puts them in the perfect spot to match their 11-5 record from last season as long as they can overcome losing Wayne and avoid playing to the level of their competition when they face struggling teams.

The road to their 5-2 record hasn’t been easy for the Colts. They’ve beaten the Broncos, Seattle and San Francisco. And they did it while having to overcome season-ending injuries to Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, Donald Thomas and Ahmad Bradshaw. Starting safety LaRon Landry also missed four games with a high-ankle sprain. That’s what makes Indianapolis’ start even more impressive.

The Colts’ remaining nine opponents went into Sunday with a combined record of 23-26.

Here’s a breakdown of the Colts’ schedule:

Nov. 3 at Houston: The Texans were possible Super Bowl contenders in the AFC when the season began. Instead they've been one of the biggest disappointments. You wouldn’t have thought the Texans would have a quarterback issue with Matt Schaub, but he's thrown nine interceptions and isn’t a fan favorite in Houston.

Nov. 10 versus St. Louis: You know things are bad when a team calls 44-year-old Brett Favre to see if he’s interested in coming out of retirement to play quarterback. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

Nov. 14 at Tennessee: This is toss-up game for the Colts. The Titans have dropped three in a row, but they lost against Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco and they were without quarterback Jake Locker in two of those games.

Nov. 23 at Arizona: The Bruce Arians reunion game. The Cardinals have Carson Palmer at quarterback – 8 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and sacked 20 times. Enough said.

Dec. 1 versus Titans: The Colts are 9-1 against the Titans in the last 10 games played in Indianapolis.

Dec. 8 at Cincinnati: The Bengals get the edge in this one because they’re at home and unlike Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has one of the best receivers in the league, A.J. Green. The Bengals also have a top-10 defense.

Dec. 15 versus Texans: The Texans have never beaten the Colts in Indianapolis (0-11). The losing streak will remain.

Dec. 22 at Kansas City: Coach Andy Reid deserves a lot of credit for the job he’s done in turning the undefeated Chiefs around. They have a top-five defense.

Dec. 29 versus Jacksonville: History could be made at Lucas Oil Stadium on this day. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jaguars entered the game 0-15.
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.

Quarterback Jake Locker played a confident and efficient first-half. The run game looked good again. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey turned a triple play with a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery all in one swoop.

Those were encouraging developments.

That was about it for the front-liners, and those positives were swallowed up by a pretty lengthy list of bad stuff for the Tennessee Titans in preseason game No. 2, a 27-19 loss at Cincinnati on Saturday night.

A look at much of what went wrong:

Third-and-long failures. Tennessee allowed Cincinnati to convert third-and-longs and string together three long drives before halftime as the Bengals built a 17-3 lead. The headliner in third-down defensive gaffes was strong safety Bernard Pollard. He and nickelback Coty Sensabaugh missed chances to tackle Mohamed Sanu on a 24-yard catch and run to the 1-yard line that set up Cincinnati’s first score. A bit later, Pollard couldn’t bring down a crossing Brandon Tate, who ran away from him for another third-and-long conversion.

Injuries. Both strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers (right ankle) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (knee) rode a cart to the locker room after suffering first-half injuries. Both rank high on the list of players the Titans can least afford to be without. The Titans don’t have a quality, big linebacker backup for Ayers and Wright is probably the most unique receiver on the team. Ayers was on the sideline in the second half, not in a walking boot per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean on Twitter.

Drops. Receiver Nate Washington could have made a tough catch at the goal line. He was well covered by Adam Jones for a while, but the ball looked like it went through his hands. Receiver Kenny Britt let a good throw from Locker bounce off his hands. Undrafted tight end Jack Doyle had a terrible drop on what should have been an easy catch for a good gain.

Run defense. Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard looked very good (seven carries for 37 yards). He took one carry 22 yards and went the same distance for his one catch. Bernard got a lot of his work on one drive and looked to tire out the Titans' defense. On a Cedric Peerman run, the Titans missed two chances at a tackle for a loss (linebacker Patrick Bailey and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua), allowing him to escape outside.

Missing kicks: After moving ahead 3-0, the Titans missed three field goals in a row, with two of the off-target kicks coming from Rob Bironas and another from Maikon Bonani. It’s bad enough that the Titans had to settle for field goals. Bironas hooked the first miss wide-left, and the second went wide-right. The usually reliable Bironas missed time recently with a back issue and this was his first preseason action. Hopefully for Tennessee, his problems were related to rustiness.

Solid fade: The Bengals got a very nice Andy Dalton throw and Sanu catch on a 2-yard fade in the back left of the end zone. Tommie Campbell wasn’t as bad as he was in the preseason opener, and he had a good play on him here. He did get his hands on Sanu early, but Sanu just made a good play. That said, he didn’t look to seize the job in this game. Alterraun Verner made two plays in the first five minutes of the second half. Forget the physical attributes. Verner is a just better football player who understands the game better and has superior instincts.

The second half: The second and third teams fared better and produced a couple of touchdowns. One gaffe of note early in the fourth quarter, however: Right end Scott Solomon crashed to the middle of the field rather than containing on his side. Young Bengals running back Dan Herron reversed course and ran to where Solomon should have been. The result was a 39-yard touchdown scamper that wound up providing the winning margin.
The sophomore slump concept baffles me.

Sure, we see it at times. But it’s as if just because there is a sing-songy and alliterative name for a second-year dip, it’s a fact that any good rookie endures a sophomore slump.

I just had a pretty good view of J.J. Watt’s second year. It was no slump.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Michael ConroyColts quarterback Andrew Luck seems an unlikely candidate for a sophomore slump.
Coaches regularly say the biggest jump for players is between Year 1 and Year 2.

When it comes to Andrew Luck, I’m not predicting anything close to a sophomore slump.

Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information was kind enough to sort though numbers on quarterbacks over the past 10 years who played substantially in their first and second years.

There are 15 quarterback in the past 10 seasons who have qualified for the passer rating title in each of their first two seasons. That requires 14 pass attempts per game.

Here’s the list of those 15:

Cam Newton, CAR
Sam Bradford, STL
Matt Ryan, ATL
Andy Dalton, CIN
Joe Flacco, BAL
Byron Leftwich, JAC
Ben Roethlisberger, PIT
Mark Sanchez, NYJ
Blaine Gabbert, JAC
Vince Young, TEN
Josh Freeman, TB
Christian Ponder, MIN
Trent Edwards, BUF
Colt McCoy, CLE
Kyle Boller, BAL

Nuggets from Singer on those 15 regarding the idea of a sophomore slump:

  • Ten of them increased their completion percentage in their second year. Young had the biggest increase (51.5 to 62.3) while Bradford had the biggest drop (60.0 to 53.5).
  • Nine of the 15 increased or saw their yards per attempt remain consistent. Edwards had the biggest increase (6.1 to 7.2) while Ryan had the biggest drop (7.9 to 6.5).
  • Thirteen of the 15 saw their touchdown-to-interception ratio increase. Freeman had by far the biggest increase (.56 to 4.2, going from 10 TDs and 18 INTs to 25 TDs and six INTs) while Young had the biggest drop (.92 to .53, 12 TDs and 13 INTs to nine TDs and 17 INTs).
  • Thirteen of the 15 saw their NFL passer rating remain steady or improve. Freeman had the biggest increase (59.8 to 95.9) while Matt Ryan had the biggest drop (87.7 to 80.9).
  • There are 10 quarterbacks in the QBR era (since 2008) who have qualified for the passer rating title in each of their first two seasons. Seven of those QBs saw their QBR remain steady or increase. Freeman had the biggest increase (25.9 to 64.6) while Ryan had the biggest drop (74.1 to 56.6).

Improvement or decline in Year 2 hardly establishes a permanent arrow -- Freeman is much less of a sure thing now than he seemed after his second season; Ryan has become a much more known and desirable commodity since his second season.

But let’s get past this default setting that a rookie quarterback who has a decent, good or very good first year is automatically going to suffer a second-year dip.

I’d bet on Luck being far better in completion percentage (where he was at 54.1 percent in 2012 and is in a system featuring shorter passing now). I also expect he will throw fewer than 18 interceptions, throw more than 23 touchdowns, absorb fewer than 41 sacks and post a rating higher than 76.5.

The trade off for improvements in those areas is likely to come in air yards. Luck’s 10.1 air yards per pass last season, per NFL Stats & Information, was the highest number in the NFL.
Arian Foster Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsArian Foster became the first running back to break 100 yards in his first three playoff games.
HOUSTON -- Don’t fast-forward too quickly. Wade Phillips won’t. The Houston Texans' defensive coordinator asked for a day before he starts to figure out how to improve on the Texans’ terrible showing in New England five weeks ago.

That’s not unreasonable.

After all, a team with a somewhat-faint pulse sprang back to life at Reliant Stadium on Saturday, smothering the Cincinnati Bengals in a 19-13 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs that earned the return trip to New England next Sunday afternoon.

“We played dominant defense, we played great, we played inspired,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders. We’ve got to get ready to play even a tougher game.”

“We kind of wanted to reset our batteries this week,” center Chris Myers said. “We know what we do best as an offense: Run the ball, pound it and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we focused in on all week.”

The key numbers that plugged into what Reed and Myers spoke of: The Bengals didn’t convert one of their nine third-down chances and allowed Andy Dalton to hit on less than half his passes for just 127 yards; the Texans gave the ball to Arian Foster 32 times and he gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown while helping his team hold the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds.

Houston’s worst-case scenario got better, and at the very least the Texans will have a 2012 season as good as their 2011, which ended with a divisional-round loss in Baltimore.

“It’s been a gut check for this organization through this past month, and the players led the way today and I’m very proud of them,” coach Gary Kubiak said.

A closer look at some key ingredients that got the Bulls on Parade into the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row:

The quarterback’s first playoff game: Matt Schaub threw a really bad pick-six, and there were stretches where the Texans appeared very reluctant to have him try anything that carried even a mild degree of risk.

But he made enough plays to get a "W" in the first playoff game of his career, connecting on 29 of 38 attempts for 262 yards. He looked to Andre Johnson on 21 percent of his throws, a number far better than the 37 percent he forced during the Texans' three recent losses.

It was tight end Owen Daniels who gave the Bengals matchup fits and hurt them the most with nine catches for 91 yards.

The offensive line didn’t only block well for Foster and the run game, but also created time and comfort for Schaub, who wasn’t sacked and was hit only twice, according to the stat crew.

It crushed Schaub to miss last season's playoff run after he suffered a serious foot injury in the middle of the season.

He’s a 1-0 playoff quarterback now.

Foster’s record: No back in NFL history had topped 100 yards in his first three playoff games until Foster pushed into triple digits Saturday. His line did great work, often getting a 1- or 2-yard push before he caught up to his blockers.

“He’s become a fine, fine player -- and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets,” Kubiak said.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNine-year veteran Matt Schaub was a winner in his first playoff game, if not without a pick-six hiccup.
Foster rarely went right, where a rotation at guard (rookies Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks) and tackle (Derek Newton and Ryan Harris) has been an issue, but wasn’t anything the Bengals were able to exploit in this game.

When Foster ran for one final first down that iced the game, Texans owner Bob McNair said he wanted to run out on the field and kiss him.

“A nice little hug would do,” Foster cracked.

Red zone: I waited for the good vibe of the day to get sufficient consideration before I asked Foster about the team’s red zone struggles going unsolved. In reply, he took the nickname he has used for me in our periodic conversations the past few years -- Mr. Positivity -- public.

But it doesn’t take a Negative Nellie to know that one touchdown in four chances like the Texans had against the Bengals won’t suffice at Gillette Stadium. The Texans were actually 2-for-2 scoring touchdowns once they got inside the 20 on Dec. 10 at New England. The thing was, they were already down 28-0 when they finally got there.

Schaub emphasized how the Texans didn’t want to force things when they were assured of makeable field goals from Shayne Graham. But the Patriots' offense burns at a higher temperature than the Bengals', and Houston won’t likely be able to choose to be conservative if it wants a chance to advance to the AFC title game.

“It was our Achilles' heel today,” Foster said. “When you get in the red zone, especially against a team like New England, you have to score touchdowns, you can’t kick field goals, because they like to put up points and they like to put up points in a hurry.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense, but that man behind center over there is a great player. You have to keep him off the field and you have to capitalize any time you get the opportunity.”

A healthy Johnathan Joseph: The team’s top cornerback has been inconsistent this season, at least in part because of groin and hamstring injuries. Phillips said once Joseph was back to practicing full-time, he’d return to form.

That sure seemed like the case against Cincinnati.

Dalton didn’t even throw a ball the direction of A.J. Green, his top receiver, in the first half. He looked for him 11 times in the second half and had one big 45-yard completion. But Green stopped on one route in the middle of the field and Joseph, who was sticky most of the game, grabbed an interception and took it 14 yards to set up Graham’s fourth field goal that boosted the Texans’ point total to 19.

“Physically, I’m probably better than I’ve been all year,” Joseph said.

Joseph and the Bulls on Parade were the first playoff defense to hold an opponent without a third-down conversion since the Bengals did it to the Bills in the 1988 AFC Championship Game.

Success will be defined a lot differently at Gillette Stadium against Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Phillips will soon start pondering just what his guys might try differently given this second chance.

Final Word: AFC South

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about wild-card weekend:

Rematch in Houston: This is the fourth time under the current playoff format that teams are meeting in the wild-card round in back-to-back seasons. In each of the previous three instances, the team that won the first game also won the second game. Houston won on Jan. 7, 2012, at Reliant Stadium 31-10. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Every other NFL franchise has won a playoff game since then. Cincinnati is 0-5 all-time on the road in the postseason, tied with the Saints (also 0-5) for the worst road record in NFL postseason history. If the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis will become the first head coach to lose his first four playoff games since Wade Phillips (now the Texans' defensive coordinator) lost his first four before earning his postseason victory in 2009.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiColts QB Andrew Luck hasn't thrown an interception since Dec. 9 in a win against Tennessee.
Playing cleaner: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck led the NFL with 23 turnovers in his first 13 games. But in the last three, he’s protected the ball well and not turned it over at all. Can he stay clean against the Ravens and ball hawking safety Ed Reed, or does he fall back into bad plays? Luck has thrown 10 interceptions on passes 15 or more yards downfield this season, tied with Mark Sanchez and Drew Brees for most in the league. Seven of Luck’s interceptions on such throws have come on the road, the most in the NFL.

Big plays from Andre: Andre Johnson has 10 receptions of 30 or more yards this season, tied for fourth most in the league. The Bengals' defense has allowed only 10 such passing plays all season, the fewest in the NFL. The Texans' ability to find such a play could be a gigantic factor in what I expect to be a defensive game. Matt Schaub has looked to Johnson too much in the Texans’ three recent losses. If the Texans are able to spread the ball around better, it can actually increase opportunities for the throws to Johnson to result in back-breaking, field-flipping plays.

Wayne in the end zone: As good as Reggie Wayne has been this season, less than 5 percent of his 105 catches and less than 3 percent of his 180 targets have been for touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Info says his one touchdown every 36 targets is Wayne’s lowest touchdown rate in the past five seasons, and the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL this season among receivers with at least three touchdowns. (The Colts' Donnie Avery has the fourth lowest with one touchdown every 38.7 targets.) Wayne needs 162 receiving yards to pass Cliff Branch for the third most in NFL postseason history and he needs one touchdown reception to tie Fred Biletnikoff, Antonio Freeman, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for third most touchdown receptions in NFL postseason history.

Also: A.J. Green has four touchdown catches this season on play-action passes, tied for third most in the league. Andy Dalton has not thrown a touchdown pass to any other receiver out of play-action this season. … The Ravens are trying to become the fourth team in NFL history to win a playoff game in five straight seasons. … Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team. … Arian Foster’s 285 rush yards are the most ever by a player in his first two career playoff games. … Joe Flacco’s not been pushing the ball downfield as much since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator.
J.J. Watt’s ascent to defensive dominance found an accelerant against the Bengals in the playoffs last year.

His interception of Andy Dalton from point-blank range and the return for a 29-yard touchdown tipped the game in Houston’s favor. It showed just what sort of stuff was possible for Watt.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsHouston's J.J. Watt returned this interception for a TD against the Bengals in last season's playoffs.
And a year later, the teams are preparing for the same game in the same round at the same location.

Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle spoke to Watt and just about every member of the Texans who had a vantage point of the play in a thorough recreation.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin: "I remember the crowd going nuts -- definitely the turning point in the game -- and then just thinking, 'God, I wish that play happened for me (laughs).'"

Dalton: "When you see him making plays like that, your offensive linemen try to get his hands down as much as they can. I have to find ways to get the ball over him and different things like that."

Watt: "I think a lot of people look at that play and say that's when I became whatever I am. I think people point to that play. The whole offseason, everywhere I went, whether it was the ESPYs in California, whether it was in New York, whether I was back home in Wisconsin, everyone associated me with the interception. Everybody would come up to me and say, 'That play.' … It was a big moment for me; it was a huge moment for this franchise. It was so cool to me being such a young guy to have such an impactful moment in this franchise's history."

Defensive end Antonio Smith said the more the franchise accomplishes, the more that play will lose its luster. Watt agreed.

The Texans' defense will hardly be thinking about minimizing the significance last year’s game-turning interception during this year’s playoff opener. But it’s sort of funny that such a thing could be a side-effect in their eyes.

I think it’s true for the players involved.

While bigger wins will carry more weight and give the team a lot more to talk about and remember, the odds of another moment, another eight seconds like those, are rare.

In the NFL, plays like that are indelible. It's a tattoo Watt will never scrub off.
Jake LockerAP Photo/Wade PayneJake Locker has thrown nine TD passes and nine interceptions in his first season as a starter.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The ticking clock for young quarterbacks is louder and louder.

If they allow for it, they can hear it at every turn.

Quick success for Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson means a large share of pundits, and even players, look at a guy like Jake Locker and wonder if he has "it."

It might not be fair to a quarterback with just eight starts, but as Locker prepares to lead the Titans against the Jets at LP Field on Monday night, it’s a fact of life.

"Those guys, especially in their first year, are setting the bar, and I think it’s normal to make those comparisons," Titans GM Ruston Webster said. "So Jake is having to live with that. That’s OK. In my mind, playing quarterback is a long-term thing, and really when you look back on a player’s career and how he improved and how he played, I think that’s the most important thing.

"But it’s amazing to me how well some of these guys are playing now early in their careers."

Locker is 2-6 in his starts. Luck, playing in the same division, is on the verge of taking the Colts to the playoffs at 9-4. Those team win-loss records are the most important thing, but quarterbacks are hardly entirely responsible for them. Locker's passer rating this season is almost two points better than Luck's.

Many of his contemporaries are faring well early, and plenty of great NFL quarterbacks had sterling first years as starters. (See chart.)

In last week’s loss in Indianapolis, Locker threw a terrible interception out of his own end zone that turned into a Colts’ touchdown. He also ran a quick sneak his coaches called for despite the fact that the play before had produced a first down. The two plays were part of an effort that left me questioning his situational awareness.

"He had an awesome first half,” said Matt Hasselbeck, Locker’s veteran backup. "And then throughout the game he had some other mistakes that he will learn from. Hopefully late in his career if those situations ever come up, he’ll have something inside of his head that says, 'No, this has happened before. I’m not doing this.'"

I don’t think Locker lacks confidence, but I do think that if he could find that one moment -- making a giant play at a crucial point in a game or leading a game-winning drive -- it might crystallize some things for him and the Titans.

When they drafted him eighth overall in 2011, the Titans said his accuracy issues at Washington were not going to be a problem. But he is connecting on 57.5 percent of his passes this season when most of the best quarterbacks who don’t have an especially vertical offense (like Luck and the Colts) are at least at 60.

Locker's supporting cast has often failed him with drops, and he is playing behind a line that has one starter left from the presumed preseason lineup.

He has been better on third down than he is during other parts of the game -- a good indicator. But he has been worse in the fourth quarter -- a bad one.

On Monday night, Rex Ryan and the Jets will work hard to confuse him with unpredictable blitzing.

"There is a lot of thinking involved and a lot going on trying to, especially protection-wise, figure out where they are coming from," Locker said.

The 4-9 Titans finish with the Jets at home, a trip to Green Bay and a home game against Jacksonville. They certainly have a chance at 2-1, and a strong finish would go a long way toward assuring that Mike Munchak will be back for a third season as the team’s head coach.

A spark from Locker would help the coach make his case. A regime change can slow a quarterback in development.

"The good thing is he’s got the demeanor. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for him," Munchak said. "I think he can handle the pressure of things not going as well as he’d like immediately. I’ve seen guys who couldn’t handle that. He doesn’t want to have to deal with it, but this is part of him growing as a quarterback. …

"He’s not going to have a two-year career. He’s got to look at it as he’s going to be around for 15 years, God willing. I think he looks at things more long term. You mentioned the guy drafted ahead of him, Newton. Well, Newton hasn’t won anything. How many wins do they have? And how many did they have last year, six? I mean he had the stats, but they haven’t won anything. Dalton’s the only guy in his class that had a nice first year."

The Titans believe Locker is mentally tough, and that could be more valuable than ever, considering that ticking clock.

Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record stood for 13 years. It’s now been passed twice in the last two seasons, by Newton and Luck.

Even so, everyone follows a different path.

While the first- and second-year guys with big numbers get the attention, Locker is not alone.

Blaine Gabbert probably won't enter his third season as the starter in Jacksonville. Christian Ponder has been struggling in Minnesota. In Miami (Ryan Tannehill) and Cleveland (Brandon Weeden), they have rookie quarterbacks they think can be long-term answers who have played much like Locker.

Munchak and the Titans are too polite to come right out and say it, but their last first-round quarterback, Vince Young, won offensive rookie of the year with an impressive start and flamed out. They’d much prefer the opposite trajectory and are confident that’s what they will get from Locker.

Locker, Ponder, Gabbert, Tannehill and Weeden have time. They can all aspire to do what the best of their contemporaries have done. They all know the success of other young quarterbacks makes it harder for people to be patient with them.

"Andrew Luck is having a great year, and what his team is doing is awesome," Hasselbeck said. "But even him, he’s got like 18 interceptions. But he’s making those big plays; he’s making those critical plays to win the game at the end, or his team is. Someone is. As they’re winning games, he’s improving. As they’re learning how to do things together, they’re winning games. And that’s really the key, winning games along the way.

"For sure the success that those teams are having with those young guys, it eliminates excuses for anybody the same age."

Final Word: AFC South

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
1:31
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

Third down after halftime: The Jacksonville Jaguars have struggled on third down on both sides of the ball, particularly in the second half. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Jacksonville’s offense is the worst in the NFL after intermission, converting only 20 percent. The defense ranks 26th in the second half at 43.1 percent. Third-down efficiency obviously keys time of possession. The Jaguars are expected to be without both starting corners Sunday against the Lions, so they need to keep the ball out of the hands of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. They can do so by extending drives on offense -- converting more third downs and by getting the Lions off the field with third-down stops.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesArian Foster faces the league's worst rushing defense when the Texans play the Bills on Sunday.
Rookie quarterbacks: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dolphins-Colts is the second game since the merger in which both teams enter with winning records and rookie starting quarterbacks, the Colts' Andrew Luck and Miami's Ryan Tannehill. The first such matchup was last year, when the Texans and T.J. Yates beat the Bengals and Andy Dalton in Week 14. To beat Tannehill, the Colts will have to diagnose play-action well. He ranks second in completion percentage (72.7) and yards per attempt (11.8) on play-action.

Arian Foster versus the Bills' run defense: Buffalo is allowing an NFL-worst 6.0 yards per rush this season. The only team in NFL history to allow more than 5.6 yards per rush in a season is the 1934 Cincinnati Reds (6.4). The Bills have allowed 5.8 yards per rush between the tackles this season, with an average of 4.1 yards coming before first contact, both worst in the NFL. The Bills have allowed league highs in touchdowns (10) and 20-yard gains (10) between the tackles this season. That’s not good news for Buffalo considering nearly 75 percent of the Texans’ rushes have been between the tackles.

Watch throws outside the numbers: The Bears' pass defense and Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will be an interesting matchup based on what they’ve done so far this season. Chicago has intercepted 10 passes on throws outside the painted numbers this season and has allowed only one touchdown on such throws. It’s a breakneck pace -- last season the Packers led the NFL in such interceptions with 13. Hasselbeck has the most attempts (71) without an interception on throws outside the numbers this season.

Also: Johnson has exactly the same number of receptions through seven games as he did last year, but nine fewer touchdowns for Detroit. ... The Jaguars have lost each of their three home games by at least 17 points, and each of their four road games has been decided by single digits. … Jacksonville’s opponents have dropped back 50 times in the first quarter without being sacked. … Indianapolis has three takeaways this season, four fewer than any other team. The only other team in the Super Bowl era to have three or fewer takeaways through seven games is the 2011 Steelers (three). … The Titans have scored 14 points or fewer in all five of their losses and have scored at least 26 points in all three wins.

Wrap-up: Bengals 27, Jaguars 10

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
8:18
PM ET
Thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at EverBank Field:

What it means: The Jaguars are 1-3 and even against a struggling pass defense they couldn’t generate much passing offense. Even those who wanted to show a bit more patience have to declare there has been insufficient progress from the passing game.

What I didn’t like: Jacksonville couldn’t cover A.J. Green who caught six balls for 117 yards and a touchdown. Rashean Mathis had a hard time matching up with Green when he had to. If Derek Cox is the player the Jaguars think he is, they may have to move to a scheme that puts their top cornerback on an opponent’s top receiver if he’s a singular threat.

Ugly numbers: The Jaguars converted just two of 11 third downs (though they held the Bengals to the same numbers). Even worse, none of Jacksonville’s 10 possessions started beyond their own 23-yard line. That’s a long field to have to drive. I thought with their kicking teams they were supposed to fare well consistently in field position. Instead they are getting shredded by a fake punt.

Issues with sacks: Andy Dalton had a solid game quarterbacking Cincinnati, with 20 completions in 31 attempts for 244 yards, two touchdowns, a pick and a 96.8 passer rating. The Jaguars failed to sack him once, and were credited with just one QB hit by game statisticians. Meanwhile, with left guard Eben Britton and right tackle Cameron Bradfield back from injuries and in the lineup, the Jaguars allowed six sacks of Blaine Gabbert, who was hit seven times.

What’s next: The Jaguars host the Chicago Bears, with at least one small advantage. The Bears will be playing a road game coming off a short week following a Monday night game against Dallas.

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