AFC South: Antonio Gates

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts rookie tight end Erik Swoope didn't know what to expect when he put pads and a helmet on for the first time ever last month during the team's rookie minicamp.

Football as a whole is a different sport for Swoope.

He didn't play it in any youth leagues growing up in Southern California. He didn't play it in high school. And he definitely didn't play it at the University of Miami, where he averaged 5 points per game as a senior on the school's basketball team.

[+] EnlargeErik Swoope
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesErik Swoope played basketball for the University of Miami, but not a down of football.
Swoope made it through rookie camp, offseason workouts and the Colts' mandatory minicamp constantly learning something new every day.

"Learning football terminologies has been the biggest challenge," Swoope said. "It's a different language. Trying to get myself, I'm not going to say forget about basketball, but take the terminology and set it to the side so I can really hone into the different languages used in football."

As improbable as it might seem with his lack of experience, there was the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Swoope catching passes from quarterback Andrew Luck during offseason workouts.

"Andrew makes it so easy," Swoope said. "You just have to make sure you do your stuff correct because he'll put the ball in the right place."

The road to making the Colts has just started for Swoope. He's considered a project player who will likely spend the season on the practice squad if the Colts decide to keep him. The Colts already have established tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen on the roster. It's all about progress with Swoope, who hopes to join San Diego's Antonio Gates and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham in making the transition from college basketball to NFL tight end.

"It's been a pleasant surprise just to see how he's been able to acclimate himself to the game of football," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "His natural-born talents show every day in practice. He does an amazing job of going up and catching the football, making difficult catches. He has a catching radius that's off the charts. It'll be interesting to see how he comes along during training camp when we put the pads on and actually start practicing football."

Swoope will spend the rest of the offseason working out in Miami with former Hurricane players preparing for his first training camp.

"I just know that will come with reps and practice and just trusting my own abilities," he said. "I feel like I'm making steady progress every day. I just need to continue to do that once we get to training camp."

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars24-6 loss to the San Diego Chargers:

What it means: The Jaguars have not exactly been playing well all season, but they’ve been particularly ineffective in their three home games. How bad? The six points were a season high in a home game, and they’ve been outscored 89-11 in three games at EverBank Field. The Jaguars haven’t scored a touchdown at home since 9:34 remained in the first quarter of a Week 16 loss to New England last season.

Stock watch: Jacksonville’s defense couldn’t get off the field. The Chargers went with a dink-and-dunk approach and methodically marched down the field all day. The first four scoring drives all lasted at least 10 plays and were at least 79 yards. Three of the four took at least 6:08. Philip Rivers started the game 14-for-14, and the Chargers converted their first six third-down attempts before finally failing. Even when the defense made plays, it ended up hurting itself. Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, wiping out a third-and-33 and giving the Chargers a first down. That drive eventually ended with a touchdown and a 14-0 Chargers lead.

Replay issues: The Jaguars were burned once because they couldn’t get a replay and a second time when a call wasn’t overturned that probably should have been. It appeared that Keenan Allen was touched down by Alan Ball on a sliding catch, but he got up and ran for an additional 20 yards. Jaguars coach Gus Bradley failed to call a timeout in time to challenge the play. Officials did review a play in which Antonio Gates appeared to fumble inside the 5-yard line but did not overturn the call. San Diego kicked a field goal on the next play.

What’s next: The Jaguars play host to the San Francisco 49ers in London next Sunday.

Jags-Chargers: Five things to watch

October, 19, 2013
10/19/13
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s Jacksonville Jaguars-San Diego Chargers game at EverBank Field:

Tight ends: Marcedes Lewis makes his return for the Jaguars after missing all but two plays this season. He’ll make an impact in the passing game -- he has caught at least 52 passes in two of the past three seasons -- but also in the running game, as well. He’s one of the league’s top blocking tight ends and helps set the edge and allow Maurice Jones-Drew to get outside. Antonio Gates is third among NFL tight ends with 36 receptions and he is tied for the team lead. The Jaguars have had trouble with tight ends all season -- they’ve combined to catch 33 passes for 325 yards and five touchdowns -- and Gates is the most talented one they’ve faced to date.

Blackmon’s streak: Receiver Justin Blackmon has had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games and is trying to become just the second player in Jaguars history to record 100-plus yards receiving in three consecutive games. Jimmy Smith did it six times. Blackmon has been on fire since returning from a four-game suspension, catching 19 passes for 326 yards, numbers which lead all receivers in the past two weeks.

Gratz’s return: It appears cornerback Dwayne Gratz will make his return to the lineup after missing the past five games with a high ankle sprain. The Jaguars’ third-round draft pick out of Connecticut had locked down a starting job before getting injured. Coach Gus Bradley said he likely will spell Will Blackmon at times if he is indeed able to play. If he does get on the field, it would give the Jaguars three rookies in the secondary. Safeties Johnathan Cyprien and Josh Evans were second- and sixth-round picks, respectively.

MoJo’s streak: Maurice Jones-Drew has failed to rush for 100 yards in nine consecutive games dating back to his 177-yard performance against Indianapolis on Sept. 23, 2012. The longest he has ever gone between 100-yard performances is 12 games, a streak that lasted from the seventh game of the 2008 season to the third game of the 2009 season, when he ran for 119 yards against Houston.

Jet lag: The Chargers played a Monday night game against Indianapolis, flew to Jacksonville on Friday, and Sunday’s game will kickoff at what would be 10 a.m. West Coast time. How will the Chargers handle the short week and cross-country travel? It should be evident pretty early if they’re sluggish.

Colts defense fails to make the stops

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
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Keenan AllenDonald Miralle/Getty ImagesThe Indianapolis defense could not get off the field, as the Chargers controlled the ball for almost two-thirds of the game.
SAN DIEGO -- The Indianapolis Colts' defensive unit has been in a good mood inside the locker room after most games this season.

That wasn't the case at Qualcomm Stadium on Monday night.

There was lots of talking among each other with voices lowered more than 45 minutes after the Colts' 19-9 loss to the San Diego Chargers.

The Colts had pushed the “bend, but don’t break” mind frame most of this season. That style finally caught up to them against the Chargers, and they can only blame themselves.

Penalties to give the Chargers first downs. Quarterback Philip Rivers making the necessary throw to keep a drive going. Running back Ryan Mathews finding a crease in the defense to run for 15 yards.

“We were shooting ourselves in the foot,” Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “We were getting the looks we wanted in every area, but we weren’t executing. It was a good example of not executing against a good quarterback. You were only going to get a look one time, and once that one opportunity was gone, they were going with it.”

Controlling the line of scrimmage and getting off the field on third down to give quarterback Andrew Luck plenty of time on the field is what the Colts have talked about on a regular basis.

They failed to accomplish their goal.

The Chargers were 7-of-14 on third down and ran for 147 yards, including 102 from Mathews.

Stopping the run didn’t suddenly become a problem on Monday.

The Colts have allowed 246 yards rushing between the tackles in their past two games. That total is only a yard less than they allowed in the first four games of the season.

“The first thing we always say is control the line of scrimmage,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “They were able to run, but as a unit we have to play better. That’s what it is. We set our standard high and we didn’t play up to that.”

Not making the necessary stops allowed San Diego to control the clock. The Chargers had possession for 38 minutes and 31 seconds, keeping Luck watching on the sideline. The Colts gave up first downs on plays of at least 10 yards on third down twice and were called for penalties on third down twice.

“We couldn’t get off the field,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “We held them to a touchdown and then forced the field goals, but time of possession, that just killed us.”

You knew the Colts were in for a long night when Rivers was being lauded.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
AP Photo/Denis PoroyUntil Monday night, Ryan Mathews had not rushed for more than 100 yards since October 2011.
The San Diego quarterback isn’t mobile like Oakland’s Terrelle Pryor, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick or Seattle’s Russell Wilson.

Rivers is a pocket-passer. That meant Robert Mathis should have been able to add several sacks to his total, right?

Wrong.

Mathis knew that. That’s why he spent most of last week talking about how dangerous Rivers is. The Chargers quarterback is now 4-0 against the Colts in the regular season.

Rivers kept the Colts off balance by constantly changing up his snap count, and he made quick throws against the sixth-best pass defense in the league.

Rivers was 22-of-33 for 237 yards and was sacked only twice. He didn’t even have to force the ball to tight end Antonio Gates. Receiver Keenan Allen was Rivers’ go-to target. He had nine catches for 107 yards.

“Philip Rivers strikes again,” Mathis said. “I’ve been around him long enough and I know that’s what he’s capable of. We weren’t able to get to him enough, and he converted those critical third downs. He has that clock that all good quarterbacks have. He was able to get it out there.”

Don’t worry, the Colts only have to face quarterback Peyton Manning on Sunday. Yes, the former Colt who is on pace to rewrite the record books this season.

“You have to make plays,” Jean Francois said. “If you don’t do it against quarterbacks like Rivers, and next week you know who we’re playing, they can jump on you. We were frustrated because we know we were doing it ourselves. They’re a good team, hats off to them.”
Andre Johnson/Matt SchaubBob Levey/Icon SMIAndre Johnson and Matt Schaub help lead a Texans team that has a clear path to the division title.
It’s a bit easy to say the AFC South should belong to the Houston Texans this season.

But I’m joining the chorus and saying it anyway: If this team can’t win this division, it’ll be time for owner Bob McNair to crumple up the plan and aim it for the closest trash can.

The Texans have a championship-caliber quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back (maybe two or three of those) all working with a smart and skilled offensive line that understands how it needs to work.

Mindset is the only question mark on offense, starting with Matt Schaub’s ability to rise to big moments. Even if he’s only average in that category, with Peyton Manning out for at least the bulk of the season, Schaub is the best signal-caller in the division by a wide margin.

The Schaub-Andre Johnson-Arian Foster combination is among the league’s best. Who has a better trio?

Philadelphia perhaps, with Michael Vick-LeSean McCoy-DeSean Jackson. Maybe Matt Ryan-Roddy White-Michael Turner in Atlanta. If we sub tight ends for running backs, San Diego with Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson is in the conversation as is Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireThe Texans' defense had an outstanding performance in its first game under coordinator Wade Phillips.
The revamped Houston defense was outstanding in the opener. Sure, much of that had to do with the Colts' offense in its first game with Kerry Collins playing in place of Manning. But we saw all the elements of a defense that can win games -- stout run defense, consistent pressure on the quarterback, quality coverage, the ability to cope with sudden-change situations.

One can see swagger and confidence in the body language of guys thrilled to be working under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I think he’s too low key, but it can clearly work for him as a coordinator. He has a way of keeping things simple and keeping the mood light, and players have bought in. I never sensed a similar feeling when Richard Smith or Frank Bush manned the post, though they obviously didn’t have the same quality of personnel Phillips will enjoy.

On special teams, Neil Rackers has a big leg that will make a lot of touchbacks and long field goals. Jacoby Jones and Danieal Manning can provide a jolt in the return game. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann isn’t proven yet but has a big leg.

The schedule is hardly a breeze, but look at the quarterbacks they could face: Collins twice, Chad Henne, Matt Hasselbeck twice (or maybe rookie Jake Locker), Luke McCown twice (or maybe rookie Blaine Gabbert), Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.

Houston’s been called a soft team, a finesse franchise. Not too many soft teams produce the NFL rushing champion the way this team produced Foster last season.

If the Texans' offensive blocking scheme amounts to a finesse one, so be it. The Colts have won the division eight times in nine seasons with a lot of finesse. They’re fine with you insulting them over it while admiring their success.

The Texans can show their toughness this season in how they stand up to Pittsburgh on Oct. 2 and at Baltimore on Oct. 16 and in how they fare in their games with the Jaguars.

The Colts' issues should be a huge assist for the Texans, as will the fact that the Titans and Jaguars are trying to stay afloat with temporary quarterbacks while developing top-10 draft picks in Locker and Gabbert. Although both teams may be ascending, their talent doesn’t match Houston’s.

If the Texans can make it through the first three-fourths of the season with a good record and in good health, they should be golden with a home stretch against Cincinnati (away), Carolina, Indianapolis (away) and Tennessee.

It sets up for success.

If this team folds under the expectations, if it cannot go get what’s so attainable, it’s going to have to be dismantled. It will require no more Mr. Nice Guy from McNair, who will have to part ways with a lot of nice guys he truly admires, starting with GM Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak. McNair will have no choice but to look for a different tone after a house cleaning.

I don’t think that’s how things will play out. I think Manning’s injury is a big break that opens the door, a door the Jaguars and Titans are not ready to approach. The Texans are more than talented enough to storm through it if they don’t complicate things. Run the ball. Work the play-action and bootleg game off of it. Rush the passer. Build from there as the season goes on and finish strong.

Watch pundits pick you to be a team that can do damage in the playoffs, and respond to it.

It sounds simple.

It just might be.
Power Rankings Illustration ESPN.com IllustrationChris Johnson (center) and Adrian Peterson (center-right) share the top honors in our Offensive Player Power Rankings.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 offensive players (non-quarterbacks) in the league today.
Next week: Toughest venues to play in.


We’ve evaluated running backs, assessed receivers, tackled tight ends and critiqued quarterbacks.

Our next assignment for ESPN.com’s Power Rankings: Rate the top 10 offensive players in the NFL, taking signal-callers out of the equation.

It’s a difficult task, considering we’ve not addressed the offensive line. (I believe that left tackles are on the long-term agenda, but that is not my department.)

Nobody else took my route. I simply put a giant premium on explosiveness and passed on O-linemen entirely. I didn’t do it because I downgraded their importance. Backs, receivers and tight ends couldn’t qualify for consideration here, obviously, without quality line-blocking.

I did it for three reasons.

  • Like virtually every football writer, I am least good at evaluating offensive linemen with my own eyes.
  • Although conventional wisdom says to build inside-out, if I could select 10 offensive football players with whom to start a team, I’d load up on playmakers and feel good about the potential to build a good line starting with my 11th choice. (I’d have an excellent offensive line coach.)
  • We’re not in the prime of Jonathan Ogden or Walter Jones or Alan Faneca. And although some great linemen got votes here, none is so good he HAD to be here. Right now, we might be more about units than superior individuals.

But my logic is easily disputed by someone who took a completely different tack. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert voted linemen fifth and sixth with Joe Thomas and Jake Long, respectively.

“It's definitely harder to measure the impact of a singular offensive lineman versus skill players, but to me you're fooling yourself if you either subordinate their role or don't consider the best linemen to be just as important as the best running backs or receivers,” Seifert said in an email laced with compliments of the AFC South blog’s content. “Linemen don't touch the ball, so their impact on any given play is more limited than, say, when Adrian Peterson gets a handoff.

“But over the course of a game, an elite offensive lineman can contribute to a victory just as much. And, more obviously to most people, a sub-par performance from an offensive lineman can lead to defeat. I made sure to rank my top running backs and receivers ahead of any offensive lineman in this ranking, but I thought the two best guys in the league -- Joe Thomas and Jake Long -- deserved to be ranked over the second tier at the other positions. So that's how I went about it.”

And so here’s the buried lead:



Tennessee’s Chris Johnson edged Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson in our Running Back Power Rankings, but the two finished dead even here, sharing the No. 1 slot.

They are ahead of Houston receiver Andre Johnson by six points, while two more receivers rounded out the top five: Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson cost Peterson the outright No. 1 spot by voting him seventh, just as he cost Peterson a tie in the running backs poll by putting him third.

“I think Chris Johnson is the best running back and I think Jamaal Charles is right behind him,” Williamson said. “I see Charles often. The guy is the goods. So, that leaves Peterson just a tad below. I stuck to my running back power rankings, which cost Peterson. Seems like it happened again. But I'm comfortable with it.”

Atlanta receiver Roddy White is sixth, Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew seventh, Long eighth, Thomas ninth and Charles tied for 10th with San Diego tight end Antonio Gates.

Jones-Drew caused a bit of a divide. He wasn’t named on five of our eight ballots, but NFC East newbie Dan Graziano and NFC South maven Pat Yasinskas had MJD in their top four.

“He's the every-down back, he's the goal-line back, he catches the ball,” Graziano said. “I just think his overall contributions to the offense set him apart. He may not be as good or skilled a back as Peterson or Johnson, which is why I ranked those guys higher.

"But for me he has more to do with how his team's offense runs and succeeds than does a receiver like a Fitzgerald or White. And while I think Jamaal Charles has more talent, the fact that he doesn't play as much as Jones-Drew plays moves him further down the list for me.”

Said Yasinskas: “I look at Maurice Jones-Drew as more than just a running back. He's an all-around weapon.”

As usual, the reasoning of my colleagues makes me secretly second-guess some of my decision-making. Wait, did I say that out loud? Then not so secretly.

It’s hard to go wrong, obviously, with an entire pool of offensive players (minus quarterbacks) to choose from.

Guys who got votes and finished 12th through 19th -- Reggie Wayne, Jason Witten, Michael Turner, Arian Foster, DeSean Jackson (thanks to my vote, talk about big plays), Nick Mangold, Greg Jennings and Steven Jackson -- qualify as an All-Star team on their own merits.

Here’s hoping the lockout doesn’t leave us writing columns off imaginary games between teams featuring our first- and second-strings.

Dallas Clark and Marcedes Lewis made strong showings in ESPN.com’s newest positional Power Rankings where we sorted through the league’s tight ends.

Here’s Bill Williamson’s piece on the rankings, where Clark came in third and Lewis finished eighth.

Those seem reasonable placements to me and aren’t far out of line with my ballot:
  1. Jason Witten
  2. Antonio Gates
  3. Vernon Davis
  4. Dallas Clark
  5. Chris Cooley
  6. Jermichael Finley
  7. Kellen Winslow
  8. Dustin Keller
  9. Owen Daniels
  10. Marcedes Lewis

The primary controversy involved Tony Gonzalez, whose one second place vote kept Gates from tying Witten at No. 1. I explained my non-vote for Gonzalez thusly:

“Gonzalez is still an excellent player. But as I struggled to find room for the 10 I felt needed to make the cut, he fell off. In 2010 his numbers suggest he was more quantity than quality. I'm not looking for giant plays from my tight end, but Dallas Clark-replacement Jacob Tamme matched Gonzo's 9.4-yards a catch, and while Gonzalez's first-down percentage was good (55.7) it was way lower than that of the three top rookies and smaller than that of guys like Heath Miller, Ben Watson and Todd Heap, who I hardly considered. One final note: As I've got access to Frank Wycheck during three shared radio appearances a week, I asked him for a ballot. I'm sure he admires Gonzalez's body of work. But right now Gonzalez wasn't in Wycheck's top 10 either.”

Houston’s Owen Daniels didn’t make the cu. My note was his only one, and got him a tie for 15th. He was coming off a blown-out knee last season and had some hamstring issues. So he wasn’t himself much of the year. When he is, I have no doubt he’s a top 10 guy, a tight end who runs receiver-caliber routes.

Overall, I expected to have an easier time putting together this ballot. But even avoiding rookies altogether, I struggled.

“After a hellish pass-rusher ballot, I thought tight ends would be far easier,” I told Williamson. “They were just as difficult. There is a great deal of young talent too. I steered clear of first-year guys, but in another season or two, this could be even more brutal to sort through.”

Final Word: AFC South

November, 19, 2010
11/19/10
4:00
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

[+] EnlargeDavid Garrard
J. Meric/Getty ImagesIn the past two games, David Garrard has completed 66.2 percent of passes thrown over 10 yards.
Look long: I’ve been critical of Jaguars QB David Garrard’s ability to see receivers downfield and connect with them. But in his past two games he has been ridiculously good on balls thrown over 10 yards. (Yes, that includes the batted Hail Mary that won the Houston game.) In two games since returning from a concussion, ESPN Stats & Information says Garrard has hit on 66.2 percent of such throws for a 20.5 yards per attempt average, three touchdowns and no interceptions and a 149.3 passer rating. The Browns will certainly be conscious of that, which may mean there is a little more room underneath for a guy like Maurice Jones-Drew.

More men on Manning: Since Colts tight end Dallas Clark was lost for the season with a wrist injury, defenses have been blitzing Peyton Manning more. The thinking is that Clark was an excellent safety blanket and outlet for Manning to find against extra rushers, but that he’s got less reliable options in those situations now. In the past three games, he has seen five or more rushers 37.7 percent of the time (as compared to 21.9 percent before). In those situations, he has completed only 54.2 percent of his passes, posted a passer rating of 66.5 and been sacked four times. Will Patriots coach Bill Belichick find a way to have a similar effect?

Careful with Cooley: The Titans have struggled against tight ends recently, getting lit up by San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Miami’s Anthony Fasano in recent weeks. Jason Witten and Kevin Boss also have had big games against them. Jeff Fisher has said it’s mostly on the linebackers. Well, they need to do better against Washington’s dangerous Chris Cooley, a guy who can do some damage after the catch. There can’t be communication issues about who’s on him when and where, or he can tear them up.

Force Foster: The Jets are fifth against the run and 14th against the pass, but that doesn’t mean the Texans should minimize Arian Foster. Offenses with a good back against good run defenses shouldn’t presume he won’t be able to gain yards. I think the Texans would be well served to show some attitude here. When they lost their opener to the Jets last season, New York players suggested the Texans were a finesse team that couldn’t slug it out toe-to-toe. Forcing the issue early with Foster would go a long way in this game toward showing the hosts that’s no longer the case. Trouble is, it may still be.

Force fumbles: If the Patriots happen to be losing late and trying to muster a late drive, they should be hyper-aware of Dwight Freeney. In the Colts’ past two wins, he has had a strip sack late in the fourth quarter to get Indianapolis the ball back. Even as offensive linemen and quarterbacks know what’s coming, Freeney is able to dig down and make a giant play to help secure a win. Second-year tackle Sebastian Vollmer is 6-foot-8, 315 pounds. Will there be a critical moment when the 6-1, 268 Freeney speeds, or spins, around him?

Final Word: AFC South

November, 5, 2010
11/05/10
4:03
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMatt Schaub will have to match Philip Rivers' performance if the Texans hope to take down the Chargers.
Canceling out Rivers: The odds are good that San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who’s got record passing yardage through eight games, will be able to move the ball against Houston’s porous pass defense. Rivers should succeed even with injuries at receiver and to Antonio Gates, who's doubtful. The Texans' best defense might just be a big offensive day for Houston, too. Matt Schaub was shaky last week, especially in the first half. He needs to carry the Texans and match Rivers.

New venue: The Colts’ game in Philadelphia is their first in the city since 2002 and their first visit to Lincoln Financial Field. In two games in the city with Peyton Manning at quarterback, he’s thrown six touchdown passes and the team has two wins and 79 points. Mike Tanier thinks the Colts’ defensive scheme, with lots of defenders in short zones, is perfect for containing a scrambling quarterback like Michael Vick. But this version of the defense will be missing two or three key pieces, depending on the status of cornerback Jerraud Powers.

Watch first down: San Diego’s offense is the second best in the league this season on first down, while Houston’s is dead last, Aaron Schatz tells us. The Texans have to fare better on first down, and Gary Kubiak has to do better with the play calling there. Last week’s failure in Indy was pinned largely on third-down ineffectiveness. But more yards on first and second down produce more manageable third downs and presto. Well, I guess you can fail to give the ball to Arian Foster enough there, too.

More shuffling: The Colts pulled Philip Wheeler for Pat Angerer at strongside linebacker last week, but they’ll probably shuffle linebackers again this week. This time it wouldn't be by choice, it would be because of Clint Session's elbow/arm injury. It’s a guess as to how he’s replaced if he's out, but the candidates to be the third linebacker include Wheeler, Cody Glenn, Tyjuan Hagler and Kavell Conner. We’re also expecting receiver Anthony Gonzalez to be out, which means Blair White could get work if Austin Collie isn’t ready or is limited.

Hurry up and wait: The arrival of Randy Moss in Tennessee ranks as one of the biggest stories in the division this season. But the Titans are closed up for the weekend and his head start might not begin until Monday or Tuesday. As far as the potential to hear from him about being released in Minnesota and claimed by the Titans, we may not hear from him until Wednesday. We don’t know if he’ll provide both the questions and the answers as he said he would when he last talked as a Viking. The Jaguars, who also have a bye, will have a quieter return.

Wrap-up: Chargers 33, Titans 25

October, 31, 2010
10/31/10
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What it means: The Titans could have ensured they’d still be in first place in the AFC South at the end of the weekend. But, instead, at 5-3 they will have one more loss than the winner of Monday night’s Texans-Colts battle.

What I didn’t like: Tennessee’s defense just didn’t get it done on third down, allowing Philip Rivers and the Chargers to covert 12 out of 18 third-down attempts. That helped San Diego to a 37:47 to 22:13 time of possession advantage and 71 offensive plays for the Chargers. That’s too much time and too many plays for even a good defense. Jason McCourty’s interception was the game’s lone turnover, but the Titans needed more.

What I didn’t like, Part II: The Titans were hardly the first team to fail to contain Antonio Gates. But whether it was a breakdown or by design, they simply can’t have a linebacker like Will Witherspoon deep downfield covering Gates on his 48-yard touchdown that put San Diego ahead for good.

Injury issues: Kenny Britt suffered a right hamstring injury and coach Jeff Fisher said after the game it will take the receiver a good while to return. Other options emerged for Tennessee in this game, but the Titans need Britt on the field to be at their best. Vince Young didn’t finish the game after rolling his ankle -- it was the same ankle (along with a knee) he injured against Jacksonville.

What’s next: The Titans will rest up through a bye week before returning to action with a game at Miami.

Productive Lewis demanding attention

October, 14, 2010
10/14/10
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We could say Marcedes Lewis’ production is up in part because it’s a contract year.

[+] EnlargeMercedes Lewis
AP Photo/Eric BakkeJacksonville's Marcedes Lewis (right) has blossomed into a complete tight end.
But it’s not as if offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is calling passes to him trying to crank up his value or David Garrard is looking to him in big situations because he wants to help the tight end get a raise.

With Mike Tice gone and Rob Boras in as the tight ends coach, Lewis is blossoming.

He’s grown to be a huge factor in the team’s run game since his arrival as a first-rounder out of UCLA in 2006. And that was always a bit odd since he came into the league rated as a great pass catcher.

He’s never had more than two touchdown catches in a season and he’s had stretches with drop issues. But he’s got five in five games for the Jaguars now. Only Antonio Gates (seven) has more.

Why are things so different?

Both Jack Del Rio and Lewis point to Lewis’ larger commitment to the offseason program and staying in Jacksonville, where he got a lot of work in with Garrard and gained stock as a locker-room leader.

“I just want to be in position regardless of if I’m blocking or catching the ball,” Lewis said. “There’s stuff designed for me now, that’s been one of the big differences ... Now it’s my time and I am seizing the moment.”

More on Lewis from three who are pretty familiar with him:

Maurice Jones-Drew: “He has always been a weapon. Obviously, he is a big target and he has slimmed up a little bit. He is much faster than he was and he is healthier. The last couple of years he has been banged up a little bit. He is just flying around. I think he is one of the best all-around tight ends in the game. You have a lot of tight ends that can catch the ball. You have a lot of tight ends that can block. You don’t have too many that can do both. He is a dominant blocker in the run game and then he is a great weapon in the passing game. He kind of opens it up for myself, Mike Sims-Walker, Mike Thomas and other guys to catch the ball.

Jack Del Rio: “He’s matured some; I think he’s more comfortable in his role and what we’re asking of him. I think the time he has spent in the offseason here, the last couple of offseasons building rapport with David (Garrard) and building confidence with the staff in ways that we can utilize him. I think that’s all kind of come together for him. He really had a great camp and it’s carried over to a great start to the season for us.”

Jeff Fisher: “Well he’s catching a touchdown pass every three times he catches the ball, basically. He’s off to a great start, I think more so than that he’s blocking extremely well. He’s developed into a very productive tight end.”
Reading the coverage:

Houston Texans

The competition between Neil Rackers and Kris Brown goes to game level Saturday, says John McClain.

At 42, Matt Turk has no competition, says Jordan Godwin.

Rashad Butler’s developed a mean streak in camp, says Godwin.

A postcard from Texans camp courtesy of Andrew Lawrence.

Previewing Texans-Cardinals with Andy North.

Indianapolis Colts

Dallas Clark suffered a left leg injury in practice, says Mike Chappell.

Some offensive linemen could be pressed into a lot of action in Sunday’s preseason opener, says Phillip B. Richards.

Brandon James could ignite the return games, says Chappell.

More on the return games, from Cliff Brunt.

Is Donald Brown a breakout fantasy possibility?

Who’s the better fantasy tight end, Dallas Clark or Antonio Gates?

Jacksonville Jaguars

When the starters were in, the Jaguars were dominated, says Vito Stellino.

Injuries dictated the lineup, but the front didn’t rush the passer well in Jacksonville’s loss at Philly, says Tania Ganguli.

Luke McCown shined but the starters didn’t, says Gene Frenette.

Deji Karim looked pretty good returning kickoffs, says Ganguli.

Gerald Alexander warns about putting too much stock into preseason results, from Ganguli.

City councilmen blew it with a dinner with Jaguars brass, writes Gene Frenette.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans starters won’t see much action, says Jim Wyatt.

Mike Heimerdinger talks about the progress of Kenny Britt and praises Craig Stevens. (Audio from Jonathan Hutton.)

A preview of Titans-Seahawks from Wyatt.

Durability is a key for Michael Roos and David Stewart, says Phil Brame.

Three matchups/angles to watch

January, 22, 2010
1/22/10
11:41
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I asked Ken Moll, Doug Kretz and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to give me one, non-obvious, key matchup in the AFC Championship Game and to tell me how they envision things panning out in that area. (You can find biographical in fo on these three fine men here.)

Here’s what they said:

Moll:

"Here is something that I thought was very subtle in last week’s game that the Jet were trying to do. Get the old man Tony Richardson more involved only early downs. Not so much in the running game (though he did average over 6 yards per carry this year/ regular season, only seven attempts) but as a receiver out of the backfield. Obviously the Colts will stack the line of scrimmage (eight in the box, etc. especially on early downs) and slipping Tony out of the backfield off of play action will likely put him WIDE OPEN in the flat where he can turn up field. They (Brian Schottenheimer) tried to get him the ball versus the Chargers (two catches and he dropped at least one) where he only had three catches all of the regular season."

"I don't think this will be a BIG part of the game but I do think he could play a part in giving the Jets young quarterback some easy throws on early downs in a hostile environment."

"Tony only has four catches in the two seasons but he does have good hands and usually is reliable as a receiver out of the backfield (career catches 205-- and nine TDs). "

"Again not a big part of the game (though he will blocking a bunch) but this matchup between the oldest man on the field (Tony Richardson) and the Colts linebackers (both in the running game as well as defending him off of play action) could be a factor in keeping the Colts defense off balance."

Kretz:

“I’d look at the play of the two interior lines. A lot of attention is being focused (and rightly so) on New York’s two offensive tackles being able to contain Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney and their ferocious pass rush. New York NEEDs to establish a strong ground game, especially up the middle. Center Nick Mangold and guards Alan Faneca and Brandon Moore allow the Jets to do a lot of running between the two tackles an area that has traditionally been a weakness for the Colts’ defensive front."

"The play of DTs Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson has been a huge lift to Indianapolis’ defense. If the Colts can’t contain New York on the ground and force them into a lot of obvious passing situations (third and long) all that speed on Indianapolis’ defense will be negated. In years past the Colts were extremely undersized up the middle, on defense, but both Muir and Johnson are legitimate 300 pounders and have done a lot to improve the Colts’ run defense."

"Look for the Colts to focus a lot of their attention to stopping Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene before they can get to the second level and produce explosive run plays or simply keep moving the chains. I’d expect the Jets to struggle with their ground game."

[Side note: Stay tuned for a column by yours truly on those defensive tackles in just a bit.]

Williamson:

"I fully expect Darrelle Revis to matchup with Reggie Wayne for the majority of this game. It should be noted that Revis did usually line up over Antonio Gates last week when Vincent Jackson went to the slot and Indy might try similar tactics to free up Wayne. But all in all, the Colts do what they do and they do it extremely well."

"They will not differ much from their norm -- nor should they. So, that will often leave Pierre Garcon on Lito Sheppard. Sheppard has more big-game experience and is probably the bigger named player, but I tend to give this advantage to Garcon -- if Peyton Manning isn't under too much duress.

"Also, the further that Indy goes into their wide receiver corps, namely Austin Collie, the harder and harder time New York will have matching up with their cover men. Many thought this was the case last week. But while Malcolm Floyd is extremely talented, he is also inconsistent and often just misses on big plays. I expect Garcon to convert."

Final Word: AFC South

December, 25, 2009
12/25/09
3:00
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:


Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswirePhilip Rivers may find increased success with short passes underneath against the Titans.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws deep well, but shorter stuff might be more effective Friday night at Tennessee. The Titans and the Lions allow the highest completion percentage on balls thrown 10 yards or less -- 74.5. Much of that is by design. Jeff Fisher and his team are willing to give up small gains. But break a tackle against a defense with two young linebackers (Gerald McRath and Colin Allred) subbing for Keith Bulluck and David Thornton, and a short gain could be a long one. One aside: The Titans lost their first two home games this season by a cumulative score of 65-40. They’ve won their past five at LP Field by a combined score of 165-78.

Dallas Clark's next 100-yard receiving game will be the eighth of his career, which will match Hall of Fame Colt John Mackey's total. Clark’s got the most tight end TDs in the NFL since 2007 with 27, leading Antonio Gates by four. Peyton Manning and Clark have connected on 41 touchdowns. They trail only two duos in history: Sonny Jurgensen and Jerry Smith of the Redskins (43) and Drew Bledsoe and Ben Coates of the Patriots (45).

Matt Schaub can thank his sure-handed wide receivers for the career year he's having. Among wide receivers who have been targeted on at least 45 passes this season, nobody has caught a higher percentage than David Anderson (80.4), while teammate Kevin Walter is third on the list at 77.4. The Texans are third in the league with an on-target/drop percentage of 5.3, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s also a testament to Schaub’s accuracy.

The Jaguars' interior line play hasn’t been great this season in protecting David Garrard from the rush, but it must be doing something right when Maurice Jones-Drew gets the ball. He should get a good deal of carries up the middle at Gillette Stadium Sunday. Stats & Info says Jones leads the NFL in rushes and yards up the middle this season. New England's interior run defense has been suspect this season. MJD has 202 of his 278 carries up the middle this season for 834 yards and seven touchdowns. The Patriots allow 4.3 yards per carry up the middle, and that number’s been 5.9 in their past two games.

The Jets blitz a bunch. Manning doesn’t flinch when teams send extra rushers. According to Stats & Info, the Jets send at least five players after the quarterback on 55.7 pct of passing plays, by far the highest percentage of any team in the league. But Manning is completing 70 percent of his passes against the blitz this season and has a passer rating of 106.8 against five or more rushers. Jets’ opponents have completed 49.6 percent of their passes against blitzes, while Manning’s hit on 69.9.

Getty ImagesThere's no love lost between Philip Rivers' San Diego Chargers and Vince Young's Tennessee Titans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Most teams have a historical trouble spot, and for the Titans’ entire life in Tennessee it’s been receiver.

They’ve struck out with high draft picks. They’ve failed to develop mid- and low- round guys they’ve selected in droves. They’ve missed on free agents. They’ve been unlucky with injuries.

In 2005 they liked Vincent Jackson, but watched him go late in the second round to San Diego, where he’s developed into a consistent threat. Eight picks later they took Courtney Roby in their third round. He’s now returning kicks in New Orleans while the Titans will have to defend Jackson Christmas night in a crucial game at LP Field.

ESPN Stats & Information says Jackson has been the targeted on more throws that have been in the air for at least 15 yards than any other receiver in the NFL. On those 52 chances, he had 27 catches for 715 yards, a 26.5 average and four scores.

The Titans try to spread it out and veteran Justin Gage has missed time with a back injury. Still, they don't have a pass-catcher close to Jackson in terms of long-pass situational production, let alone overall output (63 catches, 1,097 yards, 9 touchdowns). Rookie receiver Kenny Britt leads the Titans wideouts in both receptions (40) and receiving yards (674).

The hit rate’s been low, but Tennessee has produced some receivers, Derrick Mason most notable among them. And Mike Heimerdinger thinks a trio of Mason, Kevin Dyson and Drew Bennett at their peak together might have been his best group in his two terms as the Titans coordinator.

His trio now is productive with upside and seems to have a bright future with quarterback Vince Young, who replaced Kerry Collins as starter eight games ago.

Britt appears to be worth every bit of the first-round pick they spent on him; the inconsistent Gage has made more plays since the quarterback switch but has only caught 45 percent of the passes thrown his way according to ESPN Stats & Information; and though drops are a significant issue as well for free-agent addition Nate Washington, he has produced a team-best six touchdown catches. (Gage and Britt are tied for second on the team with three touchdown receptions each.)

In the eight games with Young as the starter, the Titans have the second-most prolific offense in the NFL. Their 398 yards-per-game average trails only the Saints (413.9). Tennessee's 29.5 points-per-game average is tied with Philadelphia for second behind New Orleans (30.6).

When those receivers have made plays for Young, it’s opened things up for the team’s featured player, Chris Johnson. That’s the goal No. 1 for the Titans, who are 7-7 and need to win out and get help to keep their AFC wild-card playoff hopes alive.

San Diego’s starting corners Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer have three picks apiece for the league’s 13th-rated pass defense. They’re both 6-feet tall, but the Titans' three primary wideouts are bigger. Britt and Gage are certainly capable of going up over them to get passes.

A nationally televised game is a good place for Britt, Gage and Washington to perform if they want a broad audience to believe the Titans are figuring things out at the position.

Four other things I’ll be watching or wondering about Christmas night as Chargers-Titans unfolds:

Bad blood: Shawne Merriman is still, um, annoyed about a play in a 2007 game where he felt Kevin Mawae and David Stewart teamed up to try to hurt him. Two physical fronts here hardly have a love affair from their two games that season, Chargers wins in the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

Mawae doesn’t mind when opponents are worrying about him, and he will use it to try to use psychology as an aid on at least a couple plays.

Controlling Gates: Chargers tight end Antonio Gates causes a matchup problem for everyone. He can run over DBs and past linebackers. The Titans best coverage linebacker, Keith Bulluck, is out for the season. The Titans would be nuts to ask Gerald McRath or Colin Allred to handle him much. Nickel back Vincent Fuller’s physical, tough and responsible, but he gives up 70 pounds and three inches to Gates. I expect he will spend a lot of time on Gates, doing what he can to hold him up. Help better arrive quickly for gang tackling.

Making it hard for Rivers: Philip Rivers is gaining traction as the quarterback who should be talked about right after Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. How might the Titans have their best chance to limit the league’s third-rated passer who carries a league-high 8.76 average gain into the game?

Get him out of situations where he’s excelled. Rivers is gettable -- the Chargers have given up 24 sacks, which puts them in the bottom half of the league. The Titans need to rush well with their front four, because with the two kid backers on the field they can’t afford to bring any help.

Other pieces of the recipe for potential success against a good quarterback are hardly unpredictable: Get Rivers in third and long, because he’s got a 91.9 rating on third down. And don’t allow him to work with a lead in the fourth quarter. His passer rating in the fourth period is 98.8.

Punting contest: Brett Kern’s been a wonderful find for Tennessee, and his punts have helped out a great deal with field position. His 37.8 yard net isn’t among the league’s best numbers, but he’s been timely. His counterpart, Mike Scifres, is capable of controlling a game, as he did in the Chargers’ win over the Colts in the playoffs last season. The Titans' return game has been an abomination this year, so don’t expect it to handle Scifres' boomers very well. Remember, every fair catch amounts to a play that wasn’t a turnover. Chargers punt returner Darren Sproles, meanwhile, can be a major threat.

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