AFC South: Ben Jones

Arian Foster and Frank GoreGetty ImagesTwo of the NFL's top rushers, Arian Foster and Frank Gore, will try to carry their teams Sunday night.

The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.

After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.

San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?

Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.

Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?

Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.

How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?

Williamson: It would be inaccurate and na´ve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.

Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?

Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.

Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?

Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.

This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?

Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.

 

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 4

September, 30, 2013
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Analyzing four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 23-20 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks:

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsRichard Sherman had a season full of clutch plays, including this interception in Houston.
Was the play call wrong on the pick-six? The play on which Richard Sherman intercepted Matt Schaub was a short pass on third-and-4 with just under three minutes left in the game. The Texans were up seven points and ran four straight run plays on which Arian Foster had gains of 6, 5, 5 and 1 yard immediately before that play. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said it was the wrong call.

"I believe we've got to just run the ball, but we run the plays that are called, and we have to make good decisions," Texans tight end Owen Daniels said.

I say both the play call and the execution were wrong. A run play eats the clock and doesn't have as dramatic a floor as a pass play does. Fumble returns for touchdowns are possible, but much less likely than a pick-six, especially against Seattle's transcendent secondary. If they hadn't picked up the 4 yards necessary, so what? Punt the ball, let your defense do what it did for all but one drive. Further, the Seahawks had that play well-scouted, running it in practice all week. Then again, in the situation in which he found himself, there's no excuse for Schaub to have tried to force the ball to Daniels. Up seven with so little time left in the game, he didn't need the first down.

Is it time to panic? The panic that followed this game was tremendously predictable. Those panicking should remind themselves that the Texans have played only four games and this most recent loss was to what might be the best team in the NFL.

Wilson vs. blitzes: Russell Wilson has been good against blitzes, but he hadn't faced a team yet this season that brings extra pressure quite as much as the Texans do. Wilson was successful against five or more rushers in his first three games, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. The Texans were much more effective at containing him: He averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt on Sunday in Houston. When Wilson finally got going it was because he used his legs, which he would rather not do.

Rotating guards: The Texans fidgeted with their left guard position on Sunday. Starter Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard/center Ben Jones, who started 10 games at right guard last season. Smith had knee surgery before this season, and last week I asked Kubiak if Smith's knee was still bothering him after he had some rest during the week's practices. Kubiak said it was not, but added that getting Smith ready between games has been a more involved process because of how quickly he returned. Smith didn't appreciate my asking if his knee felt OK. "Why does that matter?" he replied. I said I wondered if the knee was part of why he rotated with Jones and asked what he was told about the rotation. "I felt fine," Smith said, to both questions.

Texans G Jones shocked by Oliver death

September, 26, 2013
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HOUSTON – Houston Texans guard Ben Jones spoke to Paul Oliver this offseason when Jones' former college roommate sought advice from Oliver about entering the NFL.

Jones
Jones
He was shocked to learn yesterday that Oliver, 29, had died of what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"When they said it, I was like, 'No way,'" Jones said. "It’s just crazy how people would do that or what went through his mind to make him do that. I definitely give my prayers out to his family and everything. It definitely shocked me when they said that because he’s a great guy, always worked hard, and he had some trouble with grades in school, that's why he left early, but he was always a hard worker so I never thought he would do something like that."

Oliver played for the San Diego Chargers from 2007 to 2011. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2007 supplemental draft after being ruled academically ineligible at Georgia, which is also Jones' alma mater.

"Bulldog nation, we’re really tight," Jones said. "We try to stay in touch with our old players. They always come back and speak to the young guys. That was definitely something that’s going to hit home. I sent a text message to all the seniors from my year -- 'Hey, reach out to their family and everything, whatever we can do.' We’re going to try and help out any way we can."
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

J.J. Watt lobbies to play on offense and Gary Kubiak left the door open that he could get in on a goal line play at some point, says Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

The Texans currently have second-year players manning both guard slots with Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones, say John McClain and Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle.

Undrafted rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye is making a big push to be part of the roster, says Smith.

A look at the Texans new scoreboard and what the franchise is doing with new technology, from Taylor Bloom of SportTechie.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are taking it slow with running back Ahmad Bradshaw as he returns from a foot injury, but they expect to see him running angry once he’s all the way back, says Mike Chappell.

Tight end Coby Fleener suffered a concussion in the preseason game against Buffalo and will not go through the recovery protocol, says Chappell.

A look at the work of the first-team offensive line in the loss to the Bills, from Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Paul Posluszny doesn’t consider himself elite. “I need to find a way to make game changing plays, to make more impact plays, whether it’s interceptions, whether it’s when there’s an opportunity to rush the passer, I have to make plays there. Forced fumbles. They’ve got to be plays that help the team win,” he told Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

After a lackluster practice by the Jaguars, Marcedes Lewis gathered the teams and offered a measured message about how it wasn’t acceptable, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

With Russell Allen out with an ankle injury, undrafted LaRoy Reynolds is working as the strongside linebacker with the first team, says John Oehser of the team’s website.

Tennessee Titans

Damian Williams is faster than he’s ever been after summer work with Olympic sprinters, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Shawn Jefferson "might be the best thing to happen to Kenny Britt since the Titans drafted the wide receiver in 2009, and he could be the reason rookie Justin Hunter turns into a star some day. That’s the best-case scenario, of course,” says Wyatt.

Receivers have a focus on blocking as they know they are a big piece of springing Chris Johnson, says Craig Peters of the team’s website.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 14, 2013
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HOUSTON -- At 12-4 last season, the Houston Texans had the best record in the young franchise's history, won their second consecutive AFC South championship, became the first professional football team in Houston to win a home playoff game in consecutive years and finished the regular season as one of only two teams to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense.

Doesn't sound like a failed season, does it? But as the franchise has grown and checked off accomplishments, failure has begun to mean anything other than a Super Bowl win.

“We weren’t the last team standing last year, so ultimately we all failed,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “We all didn’t accomplish our goals.”

This year's Texans are more businesslike. Most of this year's team was around for the slide at the end of last season, which coincided with a linebacking corps that took one hit after another even after taking its biggest hit in early October, when it lost Brian Cushing. They shook their heads at three losses in the last four games of the season. The offense mustered only 12 points per game in those three losses -- less than half its season average.

“Everybody was so excited and couldn’t wait for the next season to come around,” receiver Andre Johnson said. “As you can see, we came out of the gate smoking, but at the end we just didn’t finish it the right way. At times, maybe we could have been feeling ourselves or something. I think, I’ve told people this before, I think the game in New England, our last playoff game, it just showed you what kind of team you have to be in order to accomplish that ultimate goal. That was definitely a humbling experience, and we’ll be looking forward to the challenge again.”

Now they return with Cushing back and an additional offensive weapon in first-round draft pick DeAndre Hopkins -- the receiver with the massive, red-gloved hands. They should have more stability on the offensive line and more depth at safety with the additions of a future Hall of Famer (Ed Reed) and a college enforcer (D.J. Swearinger). They have healthy cornerbacks and the reigning defensive player of the year in J.J. Watt, who is sure he can play better than his unreal 2012 season.

They return with an edge they didn't have last year.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Hopkins' impact: It is impossible not to be impressed by Hopkins' skill and athleticism, owed in part to his unusually large hands. Particularly adept at scoring in the red zone while he was at Clemson, Hopkins is expected to help the Texans, who didn't struggle scoring in the red zone last season but did struggle at scoring touchdowns in the red zone relative to the best offenses in the NFL. Hopkins provides a dimension the Texans didn't have in 2012 -- a second receiver defenses should fear, taking some attention from Johnson. The rookie is at his best on contested catches and spends his practices learning from cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Hopkins struggled early in organized team activities, but as training camp has progressed, he has grown more comfortable with just about everything. If he plays in regular-season games like he has in camp, the Texans' offense will improve significantly.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cushing
AP Photo/Pat SullivanWhen linebacker Brian Cushing went down for the season in Week 5, the loss was felt across the Texans' defense.
2. Cushing's return: When Cushing was lost to a torn ACL in Week 5 against the New York Jets, a line of Texans greeted the fallen inside linebacker at the door to the locker room, shaking his hand and offering condolences. Losing Cushing hurt the Texans' safeties and outside linebackers as much as it changed their inside linebacker rotation. The pass rush suffered too.

“When Cush rushes, which we try to rush him a lot from the inside, if they have to pick up a back on him they are in trouble,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We got a big advantage, so they try and pick him up with a lineman. Well, if they do that then the outside guys get a chance to get a back or a better matchup.”

Cushing's return brings back a maniacal, focused intensity that intimidates opponents.

“Brian Cushing is back,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “He's going to bring the attitude back.”

3. When will Reed be healthy? Reed signed with the Texans amid great fanfare. The owner sent his team plane to Atlanta to collect the future Hall of Famer, and the team's official Twitter provided updates along the way. Reed met with coaches, underwent a lengthy physical and then left Houston for a family engagement before returning to sign a three-year deal worth $5 million a year. About a month later, Reed had arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that he thinks he suffered during the Ravens' AFC Championship Game win.

This week, Reed was out of town rehabilitating with a specialist after having spent training camp in Houston working with Texans trainers.

“No, absolutely not,” coach Gary Kubiak said when asked if that meant Reed had a setback. “It’s just something that we’ve made our progress here for a couple of weeks. [Head athletic trainer Geoff Kaplan] has been in contact with this guy. He’s worked with us before, so we wanted him to go see him for a couple of days and basically make sure we’re doing the right things. We’re going to do that for a couple of days each week.”

So far there hasn't been any clarity on when Reed will be available to the Texans or whether he will be able to play in the season opener.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Hopkins
AP Photo/Andy KingRookie DeAndre Hopkins gives Houston a scoring threat in the red zone and a second receiver whom opposing defense should fear.
The Texans have the best defensive player in the NFL in Watt, who in 2012 had, according to his well-traveled defensive coordinator, the best season any defensive lineman has ever had. This was a good team last year that needed some cracks filled. Injuries had a lot to do with the Texans' defensive holes at the end of the season, and those injuries aren't an issue for Houston anymore. Watt also will be healthier this year. Offensively, the Texans have Johnson coming off a career year in receiving yards, running back Arian Foster and a quarterback who will benefit from a more stable offensive line and an extra receiving weapon.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about Schaub, but I expect him to be a lot better this season with the changing personnel around him.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The abundance of linebacker injuries last season hurt the defense and special teams. The Texans still are vulnerable there. A rash of linebacker injuries in training camp has caused players to miss some time. Though none of these injuries were significant, a collection of linebacker injuries that keep players out for even two or three games at a time could be damaging.

Reed's health also could be troubling. Swearinger isn't ready yet, and safety Shiloh Keo has started in Reed's place during camp. Keo has improved since last season and has had a good camp, but he would be a downgrade from departed safety Glover Quin.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Earl Mitchell had about the loudest debut as the Texans' starting nose tackle as one could have. Sure, it was a preseason game, but in 10 snaps Friday against Minnesota, Mitchell had four tackles, three of them for loss, including one sack. He also had one quarterback hit. Mitchell is quick on his feet, powerful and has a new confidence this season. The Houston native says that comes from knowing he entered this season as the starter -- a position well earned.
  • Foster remains on the physically unable to perform list. He initially landed on the list with a calf injury, but that has healed. Now, the Texans are being cautious because of a back injury. I wrote it before and will again: There's no sense in pushing Foster too much right now, especially given the load he takes on during the season.
  • With one full NFL season accrued, receiver Keshawn Martin has made a dramatic improvement on both offense and special teams. It has caught the eye of teammates. Last season, Lestar Jean joined Martin on the active roster. Jean is an incredibly hard worker, but he finds himself back on the bubble two years removed from being an undrafted rookie.
  • The Texans' third-string running back battle took an interesting turn Friday in Minnesota when Cierre Wood, who progressed more slowly at first, seemed to have a better night than fellow undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson. It's far too early to determine a winner in that battle, but those two are ahead, with veteran pickup Deji Karim threatening from a special-teams standpoint.
  • There were times last season when starting cornerback Joseph didn't feel like himself. He had two sports hernias that he didn't even properly identify until after playing in the Pro Bowl. Joseph had surgeries to repair both, and feels healthier than he did all last season. That is great news for the Texans, who pair him opposite the constantly improving Kareem Jackson.
  • It's unclear exactly how long left guard Wade Smith will be out after having his knee scoped Tuesday morning. What's certain, however, is that Smith's absence will give the Texans a chance to test the versatility of sixth-round draft pick David Quessenberry, who started out the offseason playing mostly tackle. Quessenberry made news during the summer because his truck was stolen, then recovered in East Texas with police saying it was being used for human trafficking. More relevant to our purpose is that Quessenberry has been really impressive in camp and willing to learn. Kubiak said he expects both Ben Jones and Quessenberry to see time there with Smith out.
We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position by position.

Today, we examine offensive lines.

Williamson’s AFC South offensive line rankings:
1) Titans (Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack, David Stewart)
2) Texans (Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers, Brandon Brooks/Ben Jones, Derek Newton/Brennan Williams)
3) Jaguars (Eugene Monroe, Will Rackley, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri, Luke Joeckel)
4) Colts (Anthony Castonzo, Donald Thomas/Joe Reitz, Samson Satele/Khaled Holmes, Hugh Thornton/Mike McGlynn, Gosder Cherilus)

I place them in the same order.

Just on those lists, which try to outline the likely starting units and include 27 names for 20 spots, one-third of the players are newcomers to the division.

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South offensive line units is:

  •  
    41%
  •  
    42%
  •  
    17%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,052)

Everybody will be better.

My questions for Williamson based off his list:

Your overall assessment of the position in the AFC South?

Matt Williamson: I expect the Texans and Titans to have two of the best offensive lines in the NFL in 2013. Both should be drastically improved, and in fact, so should Indy's and Jacksonville's with the massive improvement at right tackle.

Any concern about Titans jelling with two or even three new starters? Are you expecting Roos and Stewart to play better than they did in 2012 with better talent between them?

MW: Tennessee’s offensive line could take a while to jell with the interior being so different and counting on a rookie, but you would think this coaching staff should excel in that department if nothing else. As for Roos and Stewart, I do worry that we have already seen the best of both players and they are starting to decline, but I still expect the Titans to feature a top-10 set of offensive tackles overall. And wow, was their interior bad in 2012!

What's Indy's potential for improvement based on its additions in free agency and the draft? How much will Pep Hamilton's quicker passing system protect the line?

MW: The short passing game will certainly help Indy in protection, but so will the addition of at least two new starters. The Colts just have much better football players starting right now than in 2012.

How did the right side of the Texans group fare last year, and why are you expecting better?

MW: I think Houston is much better off on the right side of its line than a year ago -- which could be huge. The right side of the Texans' line did struggle last year, but hopefully they get away from rotating players there in and out, and I expect Brooks and/or Jones to improve. (I am especially high on Brooks.) Plus, Williams is an excellent fit at right tackle for this scheme if he can seize the starting job.

How much better can the Jags' line be with the addition of Joeckel, return of a healthy Rackley, a healthy Nwaneri and a scheme heavier on zone stuff?

MW: I expect Monroe to continue to quietly be nearly dominant and Joeckel to do very well right from the start, but I don't have a lot of faith in the interior. But just improving on what might have been the league's worst right tackle situation in 2012 should pay off for the Jags.

Who are the weakest links in the division among projected starters?

MW: I would say the interior of Jacksonville’s line is the weakest spot in the division. Outside of the tackles, I don't see a real mobile group to transition to the zone-blocking scheme, either. And I have little faith in Rackley overall. That could be next year's offseason project (among many other things).

As for me …
  • I hope Brooks lives up to what we've heard about him this offseason. I'd like to see the Texans with a very big right guard who has special feet.
  • J.J. Watt's influence is certainly being felt here. The reigning defensive player of the year is part of why we could see entirely new interior line starters for both the Titans and Colts.
  • Rackley will be under a large spotlight and rightly so. He missed his second year with an injury. Will we see a second-season jump, or does he turn out to be a Gene Smith leftover who hurts this team? New line coach George Yarno will have a lot do with how it pans out.
  • The Titans' offensive line has to be good for the team's overall plan to have a chance to unfold. I expect it will be very good, and the depth will be better should they run into injuries again.
  • Cherilus reportedly had a major knee procedure. The Colts clearly are confident he will be OK.
Today, I set out to sketch out a list of the 10 most competitive position groups in the AFC South.

Putting them in order was more difficult than coming up with the list, but after some juggling, I feel pretty good about what’s below. I’m sure you’ll offer me input on what’s out of order, shouldn’t be included or should be.

The more overall uncertainty and the less sure we are of a starter or starters right now, the higher I ranked a spot.

10. Jaguars quarterbacks -- Blaine Gabbert would really have to blow this opportunity and Chad Henne would really have to have a good camp for Gabbert not to be the opening-day starter, I believe. Undrafted rookie Matt Scott could make the team as a third option, and if things go poorly for the veterans and the rookie shows well, he could get a chance at some point.

9. Titans interior offensive line -- Michael Roos is a lock at left tackle, Andy Levitre is a lock at left guard and Chance Warmack is a lock at right guard. David Stewart should be the starter at right tackle, though he’s coming off a broken leg and has a bad ankle. Center could be a good battle between fourth-round draft pick Brian Schwenke and Fernando Velasco. There will be huge battles for the interior backup slot(s), where the Titans loaded up with Rob Turner and Chris Spencer. (If they signed Eric Winston to fight with Stewart, this position would move up some.)

8. Titans defensive tackles -- Sammie Hill and Jurrell Casey are locks, and Mike Martin should rank third. If they keep five, who are the other two out of Karl Klug, Antonio Johnson, DaJohn Harris and Zach Clayton? Ropati Pitoitua is an end, but comes from a 3-4 in Kansas City and will also get a look inside, so he could factor in here, too.

7. Texans right side of offensive line -- I think they would have been fine sticking with Derek Newton, but he’s not healthy. He had major knee surgery and offensive line coach John Benton said during the draft that Newton’s status is up in the air. Enter Brennan Williams, a third-round pick out of UNC that the Texans feel could be fine as the starter. At right guard, Brandon Brooks could displace Ben Jones in a potentially nice battle of second-year players.

6. Titans wide receivers -- Nate Washington got himself in the doghouse with his work late last year, and he’s pricey. But it would be hard for the team to part with him yet as the Titans are an injury away from potential depth issues. If second-round pick Justin Hunter takes off early, he could start ahead of Washington at Z opposite Kenny Britt at X. Kendall Wright is the primary slot guy. Also in the mix for snaps: Damian Williams, Kevin Walter and maybe even Michael Preston.

5. Colts offensive line -- Anthony Castonzo is the left tackle, Gosder Cherilus is the right tackle. The three spots in between them and the depth will see a lot of competition. Donald Thomas should win a guard spot and I’d think third-rounder Hugh Thornton could as well. They will battle with incumbent left guard Joe Reitz and incumbent right guard Mike McGlynn. Fourth-rounder Khalid Holmes could push Samson Satele out of the center spot.

4. Colts inside linebackers -- If Jerrell Freeman is as good as he was last season, he’s certain to start. A healthy Pat Angerer should make a strong bid to retake his old job, but the competition could be really good with Kavell Conner trying to stay in the lineup and newcomer Kelvin Sheppard in the mix as well.

3. Texans linebackers -- Rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams have a chance to win the strongside linebacking spot, which would mean Brooks Reed moves inside. Or Reed could stay on the strongside setting up Darryl Sharpton vs. Tim Dobbins to slug it out for the Mike spot inside next to Brian Cushing. This will be a good one to monitor for sure. The injury histories of Sharpton and Dobbins could be at play. Can they both stay on the field for their reps to compete?

2. Colts nose tackle -- What a revamp the Colts have put together here. The guys who can play inside were limited last year. Now there are plenty: His knee healed, Josh Chapman is the favorite at nose tackle right now. Also available are Aubrayo Franklin, rookie Montori Hughes, Brandon McKinney (once healthy) and versatile veteran Ricky Jean Francois, who can play inside or out.

1. Jaguars cornerbacks -- This gets the top slot because there is the most uncertainty. I don’t have much faith in Alan Ball based on what he did with his chances in Houston last year. Mike Harris has one year of experience, playing some as the team’s nickel. Dwayne Gratz should be a starter. There is room for seventh-rounders Jeremy Harris and Demetrius McCray to carve out roles. [UPDATE: Apologies for initially forgetting Marcus Trufant, the recent veteran addition. If he's competing for much more than nickelback, the team's got even bigger secondary issues than feared.]
Football Outsiders continues their red flags series Wednesday, hitting on the AFC South.

Tom Gower takes on the biggest remaining issue for each team.

Houston Texans

Gower says wide receiver: “Considered about the most pro-ready receiver in this year's draft, the Texans are counting on (DeAndre Hopkins') relatively polished route-running skills and natural hands to let him step in as a starter immediately. Most late first-round receivers of late have been eased into the lineup, but the Texans need Hopkins to be a high-impact player immediately.

Kuharsky counters: Sure, Hopkins’ development is a big storyline going forward. But the right side of the offensive line is more of a lingering issue and didn't add a first-round pick. Right tackle Derek Newton is recovering from major knee surgery, and could lose out to third-rounder Brennan Williams. Veteran Ryan Harris could be in the mix as well. Second-year right guards Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks are promising, but also need to prove they are going to be better and solidify a line that needs more consistency on the right side.

Indianapolis Colts

Gower says cornerback: “(Greg Toler) ranked in the top 10 in success rate and yards per pass. However, those stats are heavily dependent on Toler's role. His career history suggests that Toler can be a good nickel or dime corner, as he was in Arizona last year, but that he struggles when asked to play a full-time role.”

Kuharsky concurs: A cornerback pool of Vontae Davis, Toler, Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy really could have used one more solid entry, perhaps between Davis and Toler, but certainly between Butler and Vaughn. Cornerback depth is an issue for most teams, and it was more than a bit surprising that the Colts didn’t add one in the draft. It’s good they didn’t reach, but they might still be on the lookout for some additional help.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Gower says quarterback: ”It is very hard to win games with quarterback play as bad as the Jaguars have had recently, and generally requires a strong defense (the Jaguars ranked 28th by Football Outsiders in defensive DVOA in 2012) and a strong running game (the Jaguars ranked 27th by DVOA there). The addition of (Luke) Joeckel and the return to health by Maurice Jones-Drew should mean an improved running game in 2013, but another season of (Blaine) Gabbert and/or (Chad) Henne behind center likely means another high draft pick for Jacksonville in April 2014.”

Kuharsky counters: Gower, pretty much agrees with my thinking here. Sure they need a quarterback. But I don’t see a move they should have made that they didn’t make, and neither does he. Wait a year, build elsewhere, make things better for the next quarterback in a year. So setting quarterback aside, my concern is the pass rush, where they really haven’t added anything on the edge and don’t have sufficient depth.

Tennessee Titans

Gower says defense: “The Titans seem to be counting on a lot of internal improvement, better coaching with the addition of senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams (though Jerry Gray returns as defensive coordinator) and an offense that can do a better job of sustaining drives. While Tennessee fielded a particularly young defense in 2012 and some internal improvement is likely, most defenses that improve quickly devote more resources to adding better players.”

Kuharsky specifies: You can’t have too many pass-rushers, and counting on dramatic improvement from multiple holdovers seems shaky. So I’d narrow Gower’s category to defensive end. The team could sign John Abraham or Israel Idonije, two veteran ends who have visited recently. Adding one would make me feel a lot better about the team at end beyond Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley and fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards.

Non-immediate needs in AFC South

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
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Over at NFC North central, Kevin Seifert wrote a nice companion piece to his podcast on hidden needs for his teams.

Look beyond the obvious needs and a smart team is also lining up successors for holes that could arrive in a year. Fans are often surprised to see those picks.

So let’s look at spots we could see the AFC South address more for 2014 than 2013.

Houston Texans

Defensive lineman Antonio Smith and inside linebacker Brian Cushing are big priorities for contract extensions, and I don’t believe they will be looking to replace either.

Nose tackle qualifies as a need now in my eyes, but starter-to-be Earl Mitchell is heading into a contract year.

Running back Arian Foster is a long-term fixture, but Ben Tate is not under contract beyond 2013.

Tight end Owen Daniels will be around, but Garrett Graham is not signed past this season.

Guards Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks could both be starters in 2014, but Wade Smith’s deal expires.

Indianapolis Colts

Cornerback is a need now, but Vontae Davis can be a free agent after this season, which could recreate the need in a year.

Versatile safety Antoine Bethea is entering the final year of his deal.

The Colts could draft a running back who can contribute this year. Donald Brown isn’t a core guy and is in his final year.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive tackle looks like it was addressed, but Sen'Derrick Marks only got a year deal and the only two guys who are forecast to do much that they’ll still have in 2014 are Tyson Alualu and Roy Miller.

Running back Maurice Jones-Drew won’t get an extension before the end of 2013, so while Justin Forsett is in place for two years they need another back.

Tennessee Titans

Receiver Kenny Britt is in a contract year, and even if he finally gets it together, the Titans may want to pay him back for the headaches he’s caused by looking elsewhere.

Safety Bernard Pollard signed only a one-year deal. The Titans should be looking to develop a fourth guy behind him, Michael Griffin and George Wilson.

Eight in the Box: Breakout player

April, 12, 2013
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | SouthAFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC South team in 2013?

Houston Texans: Receiver DeVier Posey would be the guy, but he is recovering from a serious Achilles injury suffered in the playoff loss in New England. It’s a veteran roster with known commodities at most spots. Brandon Brooks played some in the final six games of the season. The second-year right guard has shed some weight and will be in far better position to unseat fellow 2012 draft pick Ben Jones for the starting job.

Indianapolis Colts: In Oakland, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey endured frequent coaching, coordinator and quarterback changes. The hope is some stability will help the him settle in and become more regularly productive in Pep Hamilton’s offense with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. Perhaps in a new setting, Heyward-Bey's speed will translate better into game speed, and he can grow into a target better able to make catches outside his frame.

Jacksonville Jaguars: We’ll have to see just how much the Jaguars add at cornerback in the draft, but second-year man Mike Harris is in prime position to establish himself as a primary contributor. He currently rates as the No. 1 corner on the team where Alan Ball is second. However, Harris is 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, and new coach Gus Bradley is coming from Seattle, where his defensive system put a premium on big corners.

Tennessee Titans: Outside linebacker Akeem Ayers certainly made his share of plays in his second season. Near the end he was used more and more as a pass-rusher, and I believe the Titans are considering him as one of their three top rushers -- thus the team’s lack of urgency in adding another defensive end. New senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams is more rush-focused than coordinator Jerry Gray, a former defensive back. That could help Ayers take another big step.

Combine takeaways: Houston Texans

February, 26, 2013
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A combine rewind on what we heard from the Houston Texans in Indianapolis…

Connor Barwin is a core player: Sure he is, as long as he’s affordable. Barwin had 11.5 sacks in 2011 and there was an offer on the table as the 2012 season kicked off. He passed, and was far less productive after his gamble. General manager Rick Smith can call him core, but to me a core guy is one you can’t survive without, and they certainly should be able to replace him if he finds a free-agent deal that compels him to leave.

They seem content with what they have on the right side of the offensive line: They platooned at both right tackle and right guard in 2012, and it sounds like they’ll be content to allow Brandon Brooks or Ben Jones to slug it out at right guard (or perhaps split time again) and see Derek Newton as the right tackle going forward.

They will keep the option of a franchise tag for Glover Quin as a possibility for as long as possible: The safety tag is about $7 million. It’s a palatable number, but the Texans have only $5.768 million in cap room. If they can’t reach a long-term deal that will produce a lower salary-cap number for 2013, tagging Quin will force the team to restructure a deal or two or cut someone that helps create room.

Brooks Reed could play inside: But that doesn’t mean the Texans are planning to move him. Gary Kubiak made it sound like they want more of a contingency plan if they have the sort of issues inside like they did last season. Move Reed inside and you create a hole outside, especially if Barwin leaves.

They’re still a young team, experiencing what they need to in order to make a jump: Yada, yada. This was quite a bit of spin, but what else can Smith say at this point when evaluating where the team stands? “We’re going to continue to add players, which is what this weekend is all about,” he said. “But I see a group of men that have gotten the experience that’s necessary to go make a real run at it and I think that’s where we are right now.”

A young quarterback is always a possibility: Said Kubiak, "In this business, you better be looking for young quarterbacks you think have a chance to be a 10-, 12-year guy. This year will be no different." T.J. Yates isn’t a sure thing. But the Texans only carried two quarterbacks in 2013, so the team would have to find someone it prefers to Yates in order to draft a QB. I don’t think they spend a premium pick on the position.

Priority one: Houston Texans

January, 23, 2013
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Today we look at the biggest issues facing each team in the AFC South and give you an opportunity to assess priority one:

Pending free agents of note: Safety Glover Quin, fullback James Casey, outside linebacker Connor Barwin, cornerback Brice McCain.

Weaknesses: The pass rush beyond J.J. Watt was insufficient and there was too much room for plays to be made in the secondary. The right side of the offensive line wasn’t good enough. Pass-game threats beyond Andre Johnson didn’t develop and now DeVier Posey is recovering from a torn Achilles. Red zone offense sputtered late in the year. Special teams allowed too many returns and didn’t get enough.

SportsNation

What should be priority one for the Texans?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,670)

Unsettled starting jobs: Right guard was split up between Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks and both Derek Newton and Ryan Harris saw time at right tackle. Bradie James is a smart veteran, but might they look to a younger and more athletic option from on the roster or outside?

Depth issues: The Texans like to play a package on defense with a third safety playing as a linebacker, and neither Quintin Demps nor Shiloh Keo was very good in that role. Secondary depth wasn’t good enough.

Health concerns: Inside linebacker Brian Cushing is coming back from a torn ACL. Posey’s got a long rehab again. McCain is rehabilitating after suffering a broken foot. Swing tackle Rashad Butler, who’s going to be a free agent, is coming back from a torn triceps. Two backup inside linebackers who I believe are good players, Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins, finished the season on IR.

Unseen issue: They seem to love Shaun Cody as the primary nose tackle with help from Earl Mitchell. But couldn’t an upgrade there would make things a lot easier on the inside linebackers?

RTC: Texans rookie linemen reflect

January, 16, 2013
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Reading the coverage ...

Comings and goings among NFL head coaches. A handy chart.

Houston Texans

While Gary Kubiak knows Matt Schaub can play better and more consistently, the Texans have to acquire more talent and improve around Schaub.

J.J. Watt continues to earn accolades, says John McClain.

Offensive linemen Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones reflect on their rookie seasons with Jose De Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts

Bruce Arians lost out to Marc Trestman for the head coaching job with the Chicago Bears. He could still land another available position, and Ryan Grigson has a doomsday plan if the Colts lose Arians.

Examining some possible free-agent connections with Colts coaches. Olly Dawes of Colts Authority draws lines that could connect the team to Paul Kruger, Dashon Goldson, Manny Lawson and others.

Analyzing Peyton Manning’s playoff numbers, most of which were compiled with the Colts, with Phillip B. Wilson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars coaching search now extends to Seattle, where they have an interest in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

David Caldwell must sort out how much a candidate like Greg Roman, an old friend, is a product of the situation he’s currently in with the San Francisco 49ers, says Adam Stites of Big Cat Country.

Tennessee Titans

Don’t expect the Titans to cut Kenny Britt, says David Climer of The Tennessean. “For now, Britt remains one of those players who looks the part and shows flashes of extraordinary ability but can’t sustain it. Certainly, injuries have held him back. But there is a perception that he has never fully committed himself to the game. It’s as if he is waiting for his physical gifts to kick in and make him an all-pro.”

Britt is too loyal, his father told Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Tom Moore is looking for a job, but said it won’t be with the Titans, says Wyatt.

 

Houston hopes to wear Wilfork down

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
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Interior defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was extraordinarily disruptive in New England's regular-season win against Houston.

Wilfork
Wilfork
For the rematch, in matchup graphics, we’re seeing right guard Ben Jones vs. Wilfork as a key matchup. But the rookie Jones will leave the field for some series with Brandon Brooks taking over. Brooks is also a rookie. He’s 15 or 20 pounds heavier than Jones.

The two are sure to get a lot of help from the team’s scheme and play calls. Wilfork can move around, so center Chris Myers and left guard Wade Smith will play a role in blocking him, too.

“Vince Wilfork was a tremendous problem for Houston in the first game,” CBS analyst Phil Simms said in his preview of the game. “What will Houston’s plan be this week to maybe change Vince Wilfork’s production? What will Houston do on the defensive side? When you give up 42 points, you have to try something different. Because whatever they did last time, it didn’t work. That’s what NFL coaching is about. And that is why coaches are so important in the NFL. They have to change game plans in order to change the performance and thought process of all the athletes they’re asking to do these things.”

The Texans rely on lateral movement in their zone-blocking scheme, and they try to cut guys to the ground. By the fourth quarter, a big defensive lineman who’s been repeatedly cut to the ground can grow awfully tired.

Houston hopes they are able to wear Wilfork down.

“He’s extremely tough,” Texans left tackle Duane Brown said. “I had one encounter with him where I pulled inside and didn’t really get much movement. He’s a big guy, creates great leverage, very smart player, can read a lot of stuff.

“When running away from him, it can be very important to get him on the ground so he’s not able to pursue and get tackles for losses. They’ve got a very talented interior defensive line, and can rotate in a lot of big guys. If you’re able to run the ball effectively for the majority of the game, it’d be nice to wear them down a little bit. We weren’t able to get that accomplished in the last game.”
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak’s endorsement of Rick Dennison as a head coaching candidate is a lot like Mike Shanahan’s once was for Kubiak, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

“None of this is calculus,” says Dale Robertson of the Chronicle. “If the Texans’ giveaways are fewer than their takeaways in their Foxborough encore, the statistical odds suggest they have a reasonable chance of reversing the outcome of a month ago when the Patriots administered a painful 42-14 razor cut at Gillette Stadium.”

Ben Jones versus Vince Wilfork is a key matchup, says Reid Laymance of the Chronicle. Jones should get a ton of help.

A look at the Texans’ worth beyond wins and losses from Loren Steffy of the Chronicle.

More consideration of the red-zone issues from Stephanie Stradley of the Chronicle blogs.

Houston’s offensive line played the best of all the teams that were in action on wild-card weekend, says Phil Gaskin of The Pulling Lineman.

Indianapolis Colts

Bruce Arians’ return to Indianapolis included at least a stop at another hospital, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. But he’s said to be fine and is likely to start interviewing for head coaching jobs at the end of the week.

Reggie Wayne thought Ray Lewis’ final celebration Sunday was disrespectful, says Chappell.

A fan post at Stampede Blue by “JPZ” offers some interesting thoughts on free agents and draft picks the team could target.

Season awards for the Colts from Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue.

Receivers let down Andrew Luck in the loss to Baltimore, says Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

New Jaguars GM David Caldwell is likely to bring Chris Polian with him as director of pro personnel, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Gene Frenette of the Times-Union offers Caldwell advice on his new job. It includes this: “A lot of popular/veteran players -- Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Terrance Knighton, (Daryl) Smith and Brad Meester -- have expiring contracts. Forget sentiment. Put on the tape, then let your scout’s eye dictate whether to bring them back.”

To which I say: I doubt a new guy's going to have any sentiment for people who have been part of a previous, unsuccessful regime.

What Caldwell does at quarterback will define him as the Jaguars general manager, says Vito Stellino of the Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans

Tight end coach John Zernhelt felt good about the work he did and was surprised to be fired by Mike Munchak, writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: All the change so far has been to the offensive staff. Surely some alterations to a defensive staff that oversaw a unit that allowed the most points in the NFL are coming as well, right?

Derrick Morgan says pass rush coach Keith Millard helped him get better, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

“Ultimately, what happens next will determine how this season is remembered,” says David Boclair of the Nashville City Paper. “Either it will be the beginning of the end for Munchak’s time as head coach, which began with so much promise, or it will be the crucible that forged resolve and development among the many younger players currently on the roster.”

 

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