AFC South: Brandon Marshall

Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

Matt Schaub doesn’t harbor any ill will toward new teammate Joe Mays, who messed up Schaub’s ear with a vicious hit last season in the Texans-Broncos game, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle. (Mays signed after this story.)

A video covering new fullback Greg Jones from the Chronicle.

D.J. Swearinger’s work ethic is drawing praise and he says it’s a result of his upbringing, writes Deepi Sidhu of the team’s website.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts should win nine or 10 games and return to the playoffs, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

Bob Kravitz of the star considers a double standard in the NFL when it comes to marijuana and HGH.

To which I say: Credit to LaVon Brazill for saying the right thing about his four-game suspension: “It’s either money or marijuana.” He said it’s an obvious choice.

Thoughts on the way the Colts are lining up on the offensive line so far, from Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Blaine Gabbert got kicked in the shin and suffered a sprained ankle, but it’s not expected to cost him much practice time, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

First-year struggles were a good lesson for linebacker Brandon Marshall, says Hays Carlyon of the Times-Union.

The Jaguars don’t expect it’ll take much for Johnathan Cyprien to catch up once he returns from the hamstring injury that has him on PUP, says O’Halloran.

Cecil Shorts wore a microphone during practice for Jaguars.com.

To which I say: My favorite line from this: “You’ve got to show up on that film because if you ain’t showing up, someone else is showing up.”

Tennessee Titans

In a week, everyone will forget that Chance Warmack held out, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Receiver Kevin Walter (back) is bummed about being a spectator, says Wyatt.

A basketball game a few weeks ago told Kenny Britt his knee was definitely fine, says David Boclair of the Nashville City Paper.
We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position-by-position.

Today, we examine linebackers.

Williamson’s AFC South linebacker rankings:
1) Texans (Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Whitney Mercilus, Tim Dobbins, Darryl Sharpton, Sam Montgomery, Trevardo Williams)
2) Colts (Robert Mathis, Jerrell Freeman, Bjoern Werner, Erik Walden, Pat Angerer, Kelvin Sheppard, Kavell Conner)
3) Titans (Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy, Moise Fokou, Zaviar Gooden)
4) Jaguars (Paul Posluszny, Russell Allen, Geno Hayes, Julian Stanford, Brandon Marshall)

Everybody’s got uncertainty somewhere in their group.

My questions for Williamson based off of his list:

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South linebacking units is:

  •  
    63%
  •  
    24%
  •  
    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,250)

Your overall assessment, please:

“Ranking the linebackers in this division was pretty clear to me. Maybe it helped the Texans and Colts that they feature four starting linebackers -- and really, guys like Robert Mathis are equal parts defensive end and linebacker to me, but he is an outside linebacker for this exercise. I would say Cushing is the best linebacker in the division and Houston's outside linebackers should be improved from a year ago. But even though I ranked them first, there are many linebacking corps around the NFL that I take over Houston's. – among them San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina, Dallas and Arizona.”

Based on what you know about what the Texans have and the guys in question, do you put Sharpton or Dobbins beside Cushing inside or move Reed inside to put Montgomery or Williams outside?

“Houston doesn't play a typical 3-4 scheme. They are more like a 5-2. I have serious doubts if Reed can transition inside in either scheme and I think that move is an indictment upon Houston just not being happy with his edge pass rush. Montgomery seems much more like a traditional 4-3 end, but Williams seems like an ideal fit for the Texans at outside linebacker, and he is who I am most excited about opposite Mercilus.”

How much of a believer are you in Walden and Werner? Any signs of a slowdown for Mathis?

“I thought Indy WAY overpaid for Walden and it was amongst the worst UFA signings of the season. I see him as a third outside linebacker in a 3-4 and ultimately, that is what he should be if Werner lives up to the hype. I do like Werner though in this scheme as the heavier OLB (think Jarret Johnson when he was there and Courtney Upshaw now in Baltimore), which frees Mathis to be more of the edge pass-rusher. I don't expect Mathis to slow down, but of course, that day could be coming soon and it might be wise to use Walden more on early downs and keep Mathis fresh for passing situations.”

Could Fokou beat out a healthy McCarthy? If McCarthy gets hurt again, how much of a drop off would there be if Fokou ends up a two-down MLB?

“I am not a huge McCarthy fan, so I would say the drop off would be minimal."

How do Ayers and Brown rank as a pair of young OLBs in a 4-3?

“I do like the overall upside of Ayers/Brown/Gooden. Gooden and Brown are very similar run-and-hit guys with extreme speed, while Ayers is more of a 3-4 outside linebacker type, which is useful when varying their fronts as well as bringing an edge blitz presence.”

How much could Posluszny suffer if the guys outside him, likely Allen and Hayes, aren't particularly good?

“There is quite a bit on Paul's plate at middle linebacker for the Jags. Not only are his outside linebackers average on a good day -- although Allen flashed some playmaking skills -- but the DTs in front of him are not great at keeping him clean. Maybe the new defensive tackles will help in that regard, as Poz is just an average take-on linebacker. His strengths are that he takes few false steps, is quick to read and is decisive”

As for me…

I need to see Hayes and Allen in the new Jaguars scheme, but heading into the season I have questions about their ability to get off of blockers to make plays consistently. That could mean Posluszny has to run around and get in on every tackle, and they can’t ask too much of him.

Before McCarthy in 2011, the Titans traditionally had a two-down middle linebacker, the exception being Randall Godfrey. As soon as the Titans go to nickel, McCarthy or Fokou should leave the field and the two backers should come out of Brown, Gooden and Ayers. Bernard Pollard will drop down from strong safety and function as a linebacker at times. If McCarthy wins the job, this work reduction may help him stay healthy.

Dobbins and Sharpton both have issues staying healthy. That could be a big factor in how the Texans starting linebacker group shakes out. They have a lot of options after adding Montgomery and Williams, and options are the next best thing to a lineup already set as camp starts.

Run defense was priority one for the Colts as they revamped their defense, and Walden may help a lot there. But Werner needs to be able to have an impact early for the Colts to have a chance to rush sufficiently, otherwise offenses will be able to focus on Mathis in a way they rarely could when Dwight Freeney was also on the field with him. (Yes, I know Freeney missed games and Mathis still had success.)
Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne are the headliners among wide receivers in the AFC South.

They are prominent in the most-recent round of research by Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus.

Johnson
Bush
Wayne
Boiled down, Clay attempts to find something more telling than red zone numbers. Why? Well, over the past five seasons, catches at the 16-yard line resulted in touchdowns 4.6 percent of the time and catches at the 21-yard line resulted in touchdowns 4.0 percent of the time.

If that 5-yard difference is minimal, why should we expect a catch at the 16 to be more productive than a catch at the 21?

“[T]here’s no reason we should be using an arbitrary number to weight what does and doesn’t count as a ‘scoring opportunity,’” Clay writes. “... Should a wide receiver screen to Randall Cobb from the 19-yard line really be valued the same as a quick slant to Calvin Johnson at the 2-yard line? Of course not. But, if you’re referencing [red zone] data, that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

So Clay calculates oTD -- opportunity-adjusted touchdowns.

Brandon Marshall of Chicago was the best receiver (and overall player) in oTD in 2012 at 12.0. Given the same hands and same quarterback as everyone else, he’d be expected to score 12 touchdowns based on his catches. He scored 11.

Wayne’s oTD was 9.9. That means based on where he was catching the ball, he “should” have had 4.9 more touchdowns than the four he scored.

Johnson’s oTD was 4.8. That means based on where he was catching the ball, his five touchdown catches were right in line with his expected touchdown catches.

Johnson's expected touchdowns should be the same, if not higher, than Wayne's, I would think.

What were the biggest differences between the two?

Johnson’s average distance from the end zone on his targets was 49.7, significantly higher than Wayne’s 44.2. And Johnson was only targeted in the end zone six times, where he caught just one pass, while Wayne was targeted 16 times in the end zone and caught four touchdowns there.

We already tied into the Texans and the issue of throwing into the end zone.

Here is further evidence they could be trying to do more with Johnson in the end zone.
Did Reggie Wayne get a fair shake from the Associated Press panel of 50 voters who pick the NFL All-Pro Team?

It’s easy to rant and rave and say no.

Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall are the first-teamers, with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Andre Johnson on the second team.

Calvin Johnson got 49 votes, one short of being unanimous. Marshall got 23, Green 16.5 and Andre Johnson 8.5. Having anything less than that and having zero amount to the same thing, really.

Demaryius Thomas of Denver, Wes Welker of New England and Julio Jones of Atlanta each got one vote.

Calvin Johnson is an automatic here, with a new single-season receiving yardage record of 1,964. Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall have strong numbers though I think Johnson’s were more meaningful as they came in an offense that was ranked much higher than Chicago’s. (I know you can flip that, it’s a matter of perspective I suppose.)


Wayne had both a “low” yards per catch and a “low” touchdown total. I’m sure that’s what hurt him even as he was third in the league to Marshall and Calvin Johnson on third down with 31 catches and his third-down average (14.5) was well up from his overall average.

He was uncanny in the leadership department for a young team that has no business winning 11 games and going to the playoffs. He was a fantastic target for Andrew Luck in his rookie season. He led the way for a team that lost its head coach to a fight against leukemia for most of the year.

But most of that qualifies as intangible. Looking at the voting, panelists didn’t seem to score those sorts of things very highly.

Nothing screams unreasonable in the way things came out, though I can understand the disappointment in Indianapolis as different results would have been fair, too.

While Andre Johnson wound up a second-team choice here, two of his teammates are on the first team: J.J. Watt was a unanimous choice at defensive end while Duane Brown is one of the tackles.
Michael BushNuccio DiNuzzo/Getty ImagesThe Texans forced four turnovers from a Bears team that hadn't given up the ball much all season.
CHICAGO -- The Houston Texans beat up the Tennessee Titans when they played, just like the Chicago Bears did.

But when Chicago did it, it had more amplitude -- four turnovers forced by Charles Tillman punching balls loose followed by a presidential endorsement by a Bears fan of the cornerback as defensive player of the year.

In the buildup to Sunday night’s Texans-Bears matchup here at Soldier Field, the Bears-as-a-turnover machine was very much the lead story.

In a league full of imagined slights, that was taken as a real one by the Texans. So they really relished winning the game, between teams that started the night with 7-1 records, and announcing with the 13-6 result in high winds and heavy rain that they’re equipped to travel whatever route necessary to victory.

“You know in every defensive category the Texans are in the top five,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “Obviously, they deserve credit for all those turnovers they get. I think people kind of overlooked our defense as a whole and kind of focused in on what they do as far as turning the ball over. I think we were conscious of that and wanted to show everybody.”

While defensive coordinator Wade Phillips downplayed things in his traditional aw-shucks manner after the game, Barwin was echoing Phillips' Saturday night message.

On this night, it was the Texans with four takeaways to Chicago’s two, it was the Texans who allowed only two third-down conversions and it was the Texans who knocked a starting quarterback out of the game.

“They made more big plays than we did,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said.

Houston coach Gary Kubiak said he was exceptionally proud of the overall effort given the weather conditions, environment and caliber of competition.

“We were able to win the way we had to tonight,” he said.

Compare their ability to win in a low-scoring slugfest with the much different kind of victory they notched in Denver in a 31-25 game on Sept. 23. It’s yet another display of balance for a team that can win with offense or defense, by running or passing, with pass rush or secondary play.

Plays came from all over the defense against the Bears, with former Chicago safety Danieal Manning leading the way with a forced fumble and an interception. Glover Quin forced a fumble, too, while inside linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bradie James took care of the recoveries. Kareem Jackson chipped in with an interception as well.

The Bears' often maligned offensive line didn’t yield a sack and did solid work against the usually dominant lineman J.J. Watt, but Dobbins dealt a big blow to the home team with a shot to Jay Cutler toward the end of the first half.

Cutler was flagged for throwing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, a call that stood up to a challenge, while Dobbins was whistled for hitting Cutler “above the shoulders.” It was a play that left Cutler sprawled on the turf for a bit and with a concussion, though he remained in the game until intermission.

“I was wondering what happened to him, a lot of us were,” said Dobbins, who replaced Brian Cushing in the lineup after Cushing sustained a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8.

“I felt like [the hit] was on time,” Dobbins said.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastArian Foster had 102 yards on 29 carries and scored the only the touchdown of the game on a diving catch in the second quarter.
He wasn’t sure if it was his blow or one delivered by Jackson at the end of a Cutler scramble on the very next play that ultimately meant Jason Campbell would play the second half.

“I have no idea, I have no clue,” he said, before touching on the increasingly taboo topic of knocking a player from the game. “But it was good that he was out, though. I mean you always want to take the quarterback out of the game. I hit him in his chest. I did not hit him in his head. Nowhere near it. I did not touch his helmet.”

Typically Dobbins said he would look to hit a quarterback hip-high, but as Cutler was still trying to make a play, he felt going higher gave him more of a chance to “mess up the throw as well.”

Multiple Texans said that once Campbell was in the game, the Bears simplified what they were trying to do and became easier to defend. Chicago got just as many first downs with Campbell playing as it did with Cutler (four) and more yards, thanks mostly to a 45-yard Campbell-to-Brandon Marshall connection.

Never playing from behind, Houston relied on running back Arian Foster to help eat up the clock. With about eight minutes left he approached Kubiak and asked him for the ball. Foster finished with 29 carries for 102 yards and five catches for 15 yards, including a diving catch on the goal line of a 2-yard throw from Matt Schaub for the game's only touchdown. (Marshall dropped Chicago's best chance.)

Yes, they’re able to do anything and win a game of any shape. But the Texans are built around their ability to run and that defense.

In the buildup to the Texans’ next game, feeling somewhat slighted won’t be an issue.

Jacksonville will bring one of the NFL’s two worst teams to Houston for a game that won’t be played anywhere near prime time.

As for how we all discuss the Texans between now and then, defensive lineman Antonio Smith would like to sing us all a lullaby.

“They can keep sleeping on Bulls on Parade, man,” Smith said, invoking a defensive nickname known more locally that nationally. “Chicago this, Chicago that. I don’t know what the stats were, but it sure looked like we played a better defensive game than they did.

“We knew it was going to be a defensive battle. It’s like a competition. Every time they made a play it just got us more amped up to go out there and make a play on our end. So it worked against them, making good plays.”

Final Word: AFC South

November, 9, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

Rare matchup: The 7-1 Texans pay a visit to Soldier Field for a date with the 7-1 Bears on Sunday night. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s just the fifth time since the merger that two teams with one or no losses are meeting in Week 10 or later. The only other such matchup that happened within the past 20 years was a 2007 clash between the Cowboys and Packers. Good news for Bears fans: The home team has won each of the four previous such meetings.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe Texans will try to contain Brandon Marshall, who has been targeted on 38 percent of the Bears' passes this season.
Tough coverage: While he may get help, Johnathan Joseph should cover the Bears' most dangerous receiver, Brandon Marshall. Marshall accounts for 37.9 percent of the Bears’ targets this season -- the league high by 7.6 percent -- and 58.3 percent of the Bears’ receiving touchdowns. In 2011 and 2012, Marshall’s quarterbacks have thrown to him 37 times in the end zone. He’s faring far better catching those balls with Jay Cutler throwing them -- snaring five of 12 chances. Joseph had a couple of bad games when he was dealing with a groin injury, but he seems to be back to form. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips talked about how Marshall is the only guy the Bears throw to. Houston’s pass defense will certainly be centered on him.

Finding his footing: After struggling in four of his first five games, Titans running back Chris Johnson has found his groove. Over the past four games, Johnson has averaged 131.5 rush yards per game. His 7.1 yards per carry average since Week 6 ranks second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson among players with at least 30 carries. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin is third at 6.6. Watch how Johnson’s offensive linemen try to sustain their initial blocks while allowing either fullback Quinn Johnson or tight end Craig Stevens to lead Johnson and make the key initial block at the second level. That approach has been making a big difference.

Third-down D: Houston and Chicago have topflight third-down defenses, which have had a direct impact on how quarterbacks fare against them. Houston has allowed the lowest QBR in the league (17.4), and Chicago has allowed the second lowest (20.6). The third lowest is the Eagles, and quarterbacks do far better against them with a 38.3 QBR. The Texans have the lowest conversion rate allowed (26.5 percent) on third down, with the Bears ranking third (33.0 percent). If some of this holds true in this matchup, the more poised quarterback should have the better chance of leading his team to the win.

Also: Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler have each won 11 of their past 12 starts dating back to Week 7 of 2011. That is tied for the best record by any starting quarterback in the NFL over that span. ... Schaub has yet to throw an interception on a play-action pass this season. ... The Dolphins have been terrible against the AFC South over the past seven seasons. Miami has lost three straight and 11 of its past 13 against the division. The Dolphins' last win in such a matchup, however, was over the Titans -- in Week 10 of 2010 season. ... Houston has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. ... The Colts beat the Jaguars 27-10 in Jacksonville on Thursday night. Indianapolis plays Week 11 at New England, while the Jaguars head to Houston.

Details on the Luck-Wayne connection

November, 9, 2012
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At the start of the Colts’ Thursday night win over the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Andrew Luck developed rhythm by throwing to his most dependable target. Of course, to go so often to Reggie Wayne, the receiver had to be open.

ESPN Stats & Info says Luck began the game by targeting Reggie Wayne on eight of his first nine attempts for six completions, 64 yards and four first downs.

Luck
Bush
Wayne
Then, a fourth-quarter connection on third down extended the duo’s league-lead in conversions (18), completions (20) and yards (302) on third down.

In the Colts' 27-10 win at EverBank Field, Wayne was targeted 11 times and caught eight passes for 96 yards.

Stats & Info says Luck has targeted Wayne on 30.8 percent of his passes this season. That’s the third highest quarterback-to-receiver number in the league behind only Jay Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall in Chicago (38.0 percent) and Matt Cassel-to-Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City (31.8 percent).

The Colts rookie quarterback has thrown to Wayne a league-high 106 times this season, 13 more times than No. 2 Victor Cruz has been targeted by Eli Manning. Marshall is third with 89 targets.

When general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano took over in Indianapolis, they sold Wayne on re-signing to be a lynchpin in their rebuild.

Now the veteran receiver who’s about to turn 34 may rank as the most valuable non-quarterback on offense in the NFL. He’s done what they hoped for and more, not just by getting open and being productive, but by offering the right messages for a young team at the right time.

And that rebuilding?

The Colts are 6-3 and in great shape to win a playoff spot. Wayne is used to playing in the postseason. If he keeps playing like he has been, he may help ensure his revamped team appears in the postseason yet again.

Fraying Titans overmatched by Bears

November, 4, 2012
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Mike MunchakAP Photo/Wade PayneMike Munchak and the Titans have a lot of work to do after Sunday's blowout loss to the Bears.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans coaches warned players all week about how Charles Tillman strips the ball, offering specifics of his techniques.

Then four Titans went out and got stripped by the Bears cornerback, including Kenny Britt on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

What does that say about the quality of players on Tennessee’s roster and their ability to absorb and execute a coaching message?

Not anything good.

Tennessee unraveled quickly and thoroughly en route to its 51-20 loss to the Bears on Sunday at LP Field. It would have been hard to play a worse first quarter had the Titans prepared a game plan for it. And some of their gaffes made it hard to see anything but an undisciplined, unprepared and ineffective cast of characters that isn’t the nucleus for a resurgence but a core lacking the sort of central DNA necessary to create a contender.

It also created more questions in my mind than I’ve ever had before about the job security of coach Mike Munchak and his staff.

“If a team underperforms, I’m the first guy you should look at for that, not anybody else, not assistant coaches, it starts with me,” Munchak said. “If we don’t finish the season the way it should, then what needs to happen will happen. ...

“We’ve got seven games to play. If we win all seven, all of a sudden this would be kind of a wasted argument.”

Yes, on the heels of this debacle, let’s dream of seven-game winning streaks.

But first, how about cleaning up things like illegal-formation penalties on consecutive first-quarter plays, where a receiver covered up the tight end?

“We had those plays in our hands days ago and had a meeting about it [Saturday] night and had a meeting about it [Sunday] morning,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I don’t know what to say. That’s not good.”

Rookie receiver Kendall Wright said he thought he was responsible for at least one of the calls.

“It hurt the team a lot,” he said. “But what I did at practice all week, I thought I was on the ball. I screwed it up. It’s my fault all the way.”

He thought he was on the ball all week, but he was supposed to be off the ball and no one spotted it or corrected it until the officiating crew got a look on Sunday? Sorry, but that is some major evidence in a case against the people running things for this team right now.

“We just have to pay attention more and know the right things to do, know where to line up,” Chris Johnson said. “These coaches all week gave us the right formula and we had a good week of practice. It makes it even worse when you have a good week of practice and do everything right during the week, get to the game and mess up.”

The Titans were out of this game in a flash, trailing 28-2 at the end of an atrocious first quarter.

“We screwed up from the get-go,” guard Steve Hutchinson said.

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesChicago's Charles Tillman made an impact right from the start of Sunday's game.
The log for the first 15 minutes:
“That first quarter is horrible,” Wright said. “We can’t spot anybody 28 points and expect to come back and win.”

Jordan Babineaux was the one Titans player I talked to who didn’t offer an immediate defense of the coaches and the plan.

“You got any questions, you’ve got to ask the defensive coordinator,” he said, referring to Jerry Gray.

I asked about the blocked punt, where he was lined up as the personal protector, but where he didn’t offer protection, running to the right and cutting out of the backfield entirely. He said I’d need to ask the special-teams coach, Alan Lowry.

The Titans’ margin for error is obviously small against a good team. They didn’t have room for this brand of clunker.

“Sometimes what is said is that wasn’t us and we’ll just sweep it under the rug and get back to being us,” Hasselbeck said. “But those are good teams that built a cushion for themselves that are up front in their division and playoffs are probably on the way anyway. ... We can’t have a stinker. We can’t just lay an egg like that. So that’s what’s disappointing. It’s hard to say that just wasn’t us.”

“It’s a bad loss,” McCourty said. “When you go out and it’s as embarrassing as that is, it just sucks to be a part of it.”

Where do they go from here?

A year ago, they were 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year it looks like that record could earn a spot in the postseason field. There are a couple of teams every year that weren’t looking good at the halfway point and finish big.

Munchak will sell the Titans that they can be that team.

What degree of belief will he get back? What degree of belief does he deserve back?

Down 31-5 at the half, he challenged his team to go out and do something special, something unexpected.

That didn’t happen.

After it was over, he preached about how everyone is in this together, how they’ve got to stick together, that they can’t split.

Munchak may be able to glue players together and the roster may be composed of guys who will stay unified. The sad truth is such solidarity may ultimately not mean a thing when it comes to altering the Titans’ fortunes.

video
The list of the league’s top third-down receivers includes one very surprising name.

[+] EnlargeWright
Jim Brown/US PresswireKendall Wright, a rookie wide receiver, has played in all eight games this season for the Titans.
There, ahead of Wes Welker, Michael Crabtree, Victor Cruz, Brandon Marshall and Reggie Wayne is Titans rookie Kendall Wright.

Wright’s got an NFL-best 19 receptions on third down, ahead of Welker (17) and those other four (16).

And of those 19 catches by Wright, 14 have created first downs, tied with Wayne for the most in the NFL.

I asked Matt Hasselbeck why he and Jake Locker have looked to Wright so much in big situations.

“Probably trust, I think,” Hasselbeck said. “Third down is where, as a quarterback, that’s when they bring all their exotic stuff, that’s where they game plan for you specifically and you in those situations go to somebody that you trust.

“I was actually not aware of Kendall getting so many balls. But in my past, usually third down you need it. It’s not a time to just give it anywhere, I mean you’ve got to have it.”

Wright has made some nice progress, but I feel like he’s still underachieving. His biggest attribute coming into the league was an ability to take a short pass and run a long way with it, and he’s not broken off that sort of play yet.

“It’s coming,” he said when I spoke with Wright on Wednesday. “I don’t know when. It could be this game. It could be next game. I honestly don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’m positive that it’s going to happen, that I can make a short pass into a big gain.”
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.

Thoughts from Jaguars' practice

August, 2, 2012
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Observations and thoughts out of my final practice with the Jaguars this morning:

  • Receiver Cecil Shorts has moved up in the rotation and was prominent with both Justin Blackmon (contract dispute) and Laurent Robinson (being evaluated for a possible concussion) missing. Shorts did a lot of good things, but had at least two drops. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert said the receivers made great gains with routes in a tough practice, he saw “crisp, perfect routes.” Drops remain an ongoing issue, however. And Shorts may have run a great route on one seven-on-seven play, but Gabbert stared him down and Rashean Mathis easily slipped inside the receiver for a pick.
  • One of Shorts’ drops produced a terrible officiating situation. NFL replacement officials are here through Friday night’s scrimmage. Shorts went up on the left sideline to grab a Gabbert pass over defensive back Courtney Greene. Shorts made a fine play on the ball, but ultimately allowed it to squirt out as he went to the ground. Official No. 82 -- whose name the league didn't make available -- had no idea what had unfolded and looked up the line to Neely Dunn, an NFL supervisor of officials who had to tell him it was incomplete. Perhaps No. 82 would be looking to his teammate up the line in that situation for help, but I saw little effort to actually diagnose what happened and a big effort to get off the hook for making a call. Dunn was doing a lot of hands-on coaching of the officials. Will the league clone him and put him on the field as a reference point for these subs if they are used in actual games?
  • I can’t visit Jacksonville during camp without watching the defensive line’s period with its coach, Joe Cullen. It can be hard to look anywhere else, but I intentionally waited until today. He ran his guys through a furious session, going from drill-to-drill and working on power, cornering and getting through traffic. For the latter, they weaved through four dummies set in a tight row before turning left to hit the QB dummy and swipe at his arm. The pace was well above what you see at position drills. And yes, Cullen’s voice is about gone. His guys know how to listen to his hoarse instruction and evaluation.
  • Chad Henne has been average at best. Gabbert bashers can find ammunition, but at this point they can’t argue that the backup quarterback would give the Jaguars a better chance to win.
  • Coach Mike Mularkey said he never promotes fights but he does find value in the competitiveness that can fuel them. He went out of his way to point out that players are disciplined for fighting. He also went out of his way to share how minor that is: a $25 fine. A bit cheaper than the $10,000 hit for answering questions about injuries.
  • Gabbert is not being discouraged from running, and Mularkey sees a lot of advantages to the quarterback using his athleticism that way. “When you run the ball, you can protect yourself, you can see where the threat is coming from” as opposed to time spent in the pocket when a quarterback is encouraged to not look at the rush, Mularkey said. Certain coverages will create running opportunities that Gabbert should be considering even in the huddle.
  • Punt-returner candidates currently include Shorts, Mike Thomas, Aaron Ross, Charles Gilbert and Mike Brown.
  • Tight end Marcedes Lewis was featured in red zone team work and looked like the effective weapon we saw in that territory two years ago.
  • Rookie linebacker Brandon Marshall had a pick, reacting well to a ball batted shortly after Gabbert released it. Couldn’t ID whose paw altered the pass, sorry.
  • Injuries: Defensive end Austen Lane suffered a sprained foot and linebacker Daryl Smith has a groin injury. Mularkey is optimistic Robinson will be cleared to return but isn’t expecting the same for corner Kevin Rutland, who’s also likely dealing with a concussion.
  • Fans at Friday’s scrimmage will each get a scratch-off ticket, and 90 of them will win the jersey worn by each player on the field, which will be autographed.
  • Non-practice aside: I saw two versions of the Jaguars' commercials pushing tickets on Jacksonville’s NBC affiliate during Wednesday night’s Olympic coverage. Gabbert is featured in one, Smith and Tyson Alualu in the other. The players introduce themselves and pledge that they are “All In.” Sleek, I thought.
We haven’t touched on it this season. But it’s a pet peeve of mine: Too many people attach too much significance to pre-draft visits.

The Jaguars had fifth-rounder linebacker Brandon Marshall and seventh-round defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton to Jacksonville. That’s two of six picks.

The Titans had first-round receiver Kendall Wright, second-round linebacker Zach Brown, third-round defensive tackle Mike Martin, and fifth-round tight end Taylor Thompson to Nashville. That’s four of seven.

I didn’t get details directly from the other two teams, but I did some fishing around.

From reports I’ve sifted though, the Texans had visits with guard Brandon Brooks, kicker Randy Bullock and offensive tackle Nick Mondek. That’s three of eight.

Also from reports, indications are the Colts spent time in Indianapolis with Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Tim Frugger. That’s three of 10.

We could be missing a couple Houston or Indianapolis visits.

But based on what we know, the AFC South visit rate of draft picks this year was 38.7 percent.

We shall recall this next year when someone notes a visit before the draft as a telling sign of something.
A piece I linked to earlier today calls for more comment.

Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union wrote about how the Jaguars intend to experiment with a Wildcat package in camp and the preseason with Mike Harris, their sixth-round pick out of Florida State in position to throw.

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I’ve been saying I think the Jaguars can close the gap on Tennessee if Blaine Gabbert can up his game to average and if the coaching staff lives up to its billing.

Two picks into the draft I was excited about what they’d done with receiver Justin Blackmon and defensive end Andre Branch.

Then they made the controversial third-round punter pick. And now they are talking Wildcat.

Seriously?

You lean on a gimmick when your base stuff won’t work, so looking at Harris’ good arm as potentially providing a change-up doesn’t serve as a great endorsement of Blaine Gabbert.

Harris was a spread option quarterback at South Miami (Florida) High School. I wouldn't bank on that for much beyond an occasional trick play.

My understanding about why Tim Tebow ultimately decided to steer the Broncos to trade him to the Jets instead of the Jaguars -- who made a similar offer -- was because he’d get more chances to play on offense in New York.

Great, I said, no gimmicky stuff for the Jaguars. They want to play and excel largely as a conventional offense.

Now I am wondering why they are pumping up the Wildcat, which is largely dead around the league.

Here’s a piece of Ganguli’s story with Mularkey talking.
“It’s not really the college Wildcat scheme but it is a way to attack defenses with somebody other than your quarterback,’’ he said.

He said his scheme sometimes doesn’t have the quarterback on the field. In some Wildcat formations, the quarterback is spread out as a wide receiver.

He said he always asks players if they’ve played quarterback at some point and how well they throw. Besides Harris, the other player he has identified as a candidate is wide receiver Cecil Shorts, who was a high school quarterback.

“We’re going to see how it looks in camp and maybe experiment a little bit in the preseason,’’ he said.

With anything they run that’s Wildcat-like this season, they are begging more Tebow questions, especially if he has any success in the system with the Jets.

The Jaguars, of course, are upbeat and confident they’ve made the right choices, with the selection of punter Bryan Anger in the third-round, outside linebacker Brandon Marshall at a spot where the roster is well stocked, and Harris and seventh-round defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton out of Ashland.

Every team in the league feels confident now. I just hope Terry McDonough, the team’s director of player personnel, doesn’t wind up regretting this enthusiastic comment:

“The bottom line is that we will win, we will fill the stadium and we are going to talk about the punter at the end of the year.’’

AFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


Despite talk of grabbing the best player available, it’s funny how often needs and picks seem to line up.

Of 31 picks, I count four that don’t technically qualify as addressing needs: Jaguars fifth-round linebacker Brandon Marshall, Titans fifth-round tight end Taylor Thompson, Jaguars sixth-round cornerback Mike Harris and Colts seventh-round quarterback Chandler Harnish.

We saw the Texans replenish at outside linebacker, on the offensive line and at kicker and add to their options at receiver. The Colts loaded up on help for No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck -- seven of their other nine picks bring offensive players to Indianapolis . Jacksonville addressed its big needs right out of the chute, then made a couple of odd selections. Tennessee didn’t take two players at the same position.

BEST MOVE

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Al Bello/Getty ImagesJustin Blackmon is the premier playmaker the Jaguars' offense sorely needed.
The Jaguars came into the offseason in dire need of upgraded weaponry for Blaine Gabbert. They started last season with wide receiver Jason Hill as a starter, and he was cut before the season ended. Mike Thomas was miscast as a top-of-the-group guy when he should be a No. 3. Cecil Shorts showed he needs a lot of time to develop.

Mike Mularkey hired a solid receiver coach, Jerry Sullivan. He’s a tremendous upgrade from Johnny Cox, who was quickly fired after Jack Del Rio was dismissed during the 2011 season. Free agency brought Laurent Robinson, who should help, and Lee Evans, who’d be gravy if he can revive his career.

The Jaguars successfully sold pundits on the idea they’d be trading down, then only gave up a fourth-rounder to move up from No. 7 to No. 5 to draft Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon. He’s a dynamic receiver who can catch balls outside his frame and cause matchup problems.

Outside of Luck, no team in the division got a player who can cure an ill better than Blackmon can fix what ails the Jacksonville offense. Now it’s on Gabbert to show he can effectively get the ball to the new star receiver.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Titans didn’t touch a defensive end until Scott Solomon in the seventh round, and they didn’t add an offensive lineman at all. And pass rush and run blocking were two areas that qualified as weaknesses at the end of last season.

Tennessee hosted Scott Wells, Chris Myers, Jeff Saturday and Dan Koppen and saw all four sign elsewhere. On Saturday, coach Mike Munchak made those meetings sound like information-gathering get-togethers rather than courtships, a stance that’s pretty insulting to veterans who wouldn’t waste time making visits without the possibility of a contract.

The defense of incumbent starters on the interior -- Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris -- has entered a new round now. Munchak said the team felt no “dire need there” and that “we have guys we can win with.” Still, watch for a key undrafted addition or free agent or two.

The Titans added one big piece this offseason to its insufficient pass rush in the form of free-agent end Kamerion Wimbley, who was a cap casualty in Oakland. He may provide a big boost but also probably shouldn’t be on the field for every play. Tennessee’s only attempt to bolster itself on the edges came with the 211th pick, end Scott Solomon from Rice.

The Titans face a pretty good slate of quarterbacks this season. Those passers may have a lot of time to throw.

MOST SURPRISING PICK

We hit it hard Saturday night, but the Jaguars' selection of Bryan Anger in the third round was a baffler. Yes, the team will benefit from a big leg and stands to gain field position.

But Jacksonville overrated special teams’ impact by deciding to draft Anger so early rather than addressing other needs where it could have selected a player with a chance to play.

The Jaguars have a recent history of messing up at the position, and teams that struggle with stability at a spot are prone to overreach in an effort to correct it.

I believe that’s a good piece of what happened here. They could have gotten him or a punter who still would have been a big upgrade later.

The Jaguars found Terrance Knighton, Derek Cox and Will Rackley in the third round in Gene Smith’s previous three drafts. They are all starters who affect games more than a punter can.

They can rationalize this pick. And we can stridently disagree.

FILE IT AWAY

Six receivers came into the division -- Blackmon, Kendall Wright in Tennessee, T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill in Indianapolis and DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin in Houston. That’s two first-rounders, two third-rounders, a fourth-rounder and a sixth-rounder.

The countermeasures?

Just two incoming cornerbacks -- Titans fourth-rounder Coty Sensabaugh and Jaguars sixth-rounder Harris.

Secondary depth could be severely tested by good quarterbacks and receivers, especially when the division faces the NFC North and the high-powered passing offenses of Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

The Colts have no proven corners beyond Jerraud Powers. The Texans lost Jason Allen, who played a reasonable amount. The Titans need to unearth a new nickelback now that Cortland Finnegan is gone. Only the Jaguars have fortified the spot, adding two-time Super Bowl winner Aaron Ross, presumably getting Cox and Rashean Mathis back healthy and drafting Harris.

The AFC South is a big running back division, but it’s become more equipped to sling it and may not have the people needed to cover offenses with a lot of downfield weapons.

“It tells you that this is a wide-open league, the offensive focus is on scoring points probably more than ever,” Titans general manager Ruston Webster said. “It’s becoming more of a quarterback-wide receiver league probably every day.”

RTC: Hail Mary heroics in Jacksonville

November, 15, 2010
11/15/10
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Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

The stunning loss came courtesy of a Hail Mary, says John McClain.

If you’re dumbfounded, imagine how the Texans feel, says Richard Justice.

Joel Dreessen lamented his fumble, says McClain.

The playoff hopes are almost gone after this stunner, says Dale Robertson.

The Jaguars all have their roles on the Hail Mary, says McClain.

Offensive inconsistency continues, say McClain and Robertson.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts feasted on Cincinnati turnovers, says Phil Richards.

It wasn’t artistically satisfying, but it was good enough while awaiting reinforcements, says Bob Kravitz.

The offense is staggering without weapons, says Mike Chappell.

Kravitz’s report card.

This is why they are called the Bungles, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Pierre Garcon is convinced he had possession of the onside kick, says Chappell.

It was an important win in difficult circumstances, says John Oehser.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Hail yeah: the Jaguars won with a last-second bomb, says Vito Stellino.

Mike Thomas is about to become a dad, but he wasn’t expecting this, says Gene Frenette.

Sean Considine’s strip set it all up, says Garry Smits.

Maurice Jones-Drew is finding his groove, says Tania Ganguli.

Zach Miller vexes the Texans again, says Jeff Elliott.

Thomas had to convince himself “it happened,” says Ganguli.

Gene Frenette and Ganguli review the game. (Video.)

Josh Scobee is already over his first bad game, says Elliott.

Is Monday off a good idea? Collin Streetman ponders.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans and Randy Moss struggled in Miami, says Jim Wyatt.

The Titans scrambled to find a healthy quarterback, says Wyatt.

Two Miami quarterbacks got knocked out, says Wyatt.

Moss did impact the running game, says Wyatt.

Moss gave himself a bad review, says Wyatt.

Wyatt’s report card.

Moss was tired for the Titans’ last-chance play, says Wyatt.

Tennessee got no jump start from Moss, says David Climer.

If this is why they wanted Moss, they should have skipped him, says Bob McClellan.

Tyler Thigpen came through for the Dolphins, says Pete Prisco.

Thigpen sunk the Titans, says Alex Marvez.

It was a quiet day for both Moss and Brandon Marshall, says Jason Cole.

Vince Young dismissed a report of bye-week absence, says Darren McFarland.

A shortage of turnovers and sacks caused problems for Titans, says Terry McCormick.

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