AFC South: Brice McCain

Colts vs. Steelers preview

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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The streaking Indianapolis Colts will try to win their sixth game in a row on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slowing down quarterback Andrew Luck will be the Steelers' priority, and they have to find a way to minimize his impact or score enough to keep pace with the 5-2 Colts. Beating Indianapolis would give Pittsburgh a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season as well as a signature win.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 4:25 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

Brown: Mike, the Steelers’ passing game has been torched by the likes of Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer this season. The Steelers' pass rush has been average, and they are suspect in the secondary. That is not a good formula for stopping Luck. What is the best way to contain him, if that is possible?

Wells: Blitzing Luck is the best way, but that appears to be a problem for the Steelers. Luck has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around this season. He is not just focusing on receivers Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton. Luck had back-to-back games where he completed passes to nine different receivers this season. His biggest problem, though, is interceptions: He is tied for third in the league in that category with seven. The Colts have survived Luck’s miscues so far, but they won’t be as fortunate once they get to the playoffs and face teams that can make them pay for their mistakes.

The Steelers are a tough team to figure out. One week they get blown out by Cleveland, and then they come back and use an incredible performance in the second quarter to beat Houston. What is Pittsburgh’s identity?

Brown: Mike, I can’t figure out this team quarter to quarter, much less game to game. The defense certainly isn’t the one that people are accustomed to seeing. There is no intimidation factor, no swagger, and the Steelers are really just trying to get by defensively as they retool a unit that is in transition. The Steelers have the potential to forge a personality as a dynamic offensive team, as they have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, the second-leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell and, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have moved the ball this season, but they have too often bogged down in the red zone. Maybe scoring three touchdowns in the last three minutes of the second quarter Monday night against the Texans will serve as a springboard for the offense. It had better put up a lot of points against the Colts if the Steelers are to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

I normally don’t associate the Colts with the kind of defense they played in absolutely stifling the Bengals on Sunday. Is Indianapolis' defense underrated?

Wells: It is very underrated. I didn’t think this defense had a chance once linebacker Robert Mathis, last season’s sack leader, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The unit appeared to be headed for a rough season after it had only one sack over the first two games. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has taken a hold-nothing-back approach with his defense. With two cornerbacks who can blanket receivers, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, Manusky is loading the box and constantly blitzing. That is why the Colts have 20 sacks and nine turnovers during their five-game winning streak. They have also held their past four opponents to 4-of-41 on third down. People might not have respected the Colts' defense before, but now teams have to take notice.

The Steelers have a history of being a good defensive team. They are 15th in the league in yards allowed a game. Are they on the decline defensively?

Brown: That is a great question. The Steelers have to hope it doesn’t get any worse defensively, or they could be in trouble. They have some promising young players to build around in rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Steelers have serious questions at outside linebacker, especially if 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones doesn’t develop into a pass-rushing force. Cornerback is also an issue, a position at which the organization has not drafted well or neglected, depending on your vantage point. Cortez Allen is the Steelers’ best young cornerback, and he recently lost his starting job to Brice McCain. Allen has the physical ability to develop into a No. 1 cornerback, but the 2011 fourth-round pick has to become more consistent. It could get worse before it gets better on defense, given some of the holes that the Steelers have tried to spackle over by moves such as coaxing veteran outside linebacker James Harrison out of retirement.

The Colts seem like they have something going with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. Richardson seems to be playing much better than he did last season. Is part of the reason that Bradshaw has eased the pressure on Richardson to carry the Colts' ground game?

Wells: Richardson might never live up to the expectations as being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, but he is running better than he did last season, when he eventually was demoted. He is running with more confidence and making better decisions. Having Bradshaw has been a blessing for Richardson because he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the load in the backfield. Neither player has a problem sharing the work, and it helps that Bradshaw is familiar with sharing the load in the backfield. He went through it while with the New York Giants.

Brown looks like he could surpass the 1,499 receiving yards he had last season. What makes him so successful, and what type of challenges will he present to the Colts’ secondary?

Brown: I thought Brown would have a really tough time matching his production in 2013, when the fifth-year veteran set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season. He has been even better this season and has scored five touchdowns after reaching the end zone eight times in 2013. Brown is an excellent route-runner, makes tough catches in traffic and is dazzling after the catch. The Colts will have to limit the damage Brown does after the catch, and I would imagine they will do everything they can to take him out of the game. But no team has succeeded in doing that, even though a reliable complement opposite Brown has yet to emerge.

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 10

November, 11, 2013
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A look at four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 27-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeBen Tate
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesBen Tate will aim to boost the Browns' offense with his physical running style.
Andre Johnson wasn't giving up those touchdowns: Texans receiver Andre Johnson was a big part of what kept Houston in the game. He caught a first-quarter touchdown and a fourth-quarter touchdown, barely getting his feet in. He admitted after the game that Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson had good coverage on him, but added that wasn't going to get in the way of his own determination to come down with the ball.

Should the Texans have stayed on the ground more? Ben Tate, now the Texans' starting running back with Arian Foster headed to injured reserve, thought the Texans should have run the ball more in the second half. "I felt like it was working," he said. "I don’t understand why we went away from it. Besides that, I really don’t know. We just can’t play one half of football every week. If we were playing one half of football, we’d be doing great right now, but there’s two halves." The Texans ran the ball 14 times in the first half and seven times in the second half. Tate said that while he wasn't 100 percent (still recovering from broken ribs) he felt he was effective and could have carried more.

The feat of the foot: A few weeks ago when I approached punter Shane Lechler to tell him how close he was to 50,000 career punting yards, long snapper Jon Weeks jokingly indicated fatigue at hearing about how good Lechler is. The punter lightly indicated it had more to do with being old. He doesn't care much about punting yards as a statistic, but on Sunday he went over the 50,000-yard mark. Only five other punters have reached that landmark, according to ESPN Stats and Information. More than anything it indicates longevity. Lechler, who is in his 14th season, said he wants to punt for 20 years.

Critical Arizona score: The Cardinals took a three-point lead into the fourth quarter, but it turned into 10 when Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer found Andre Roberts 5 yards beyond his defensive back, Brice McCain. "All out blitz," McCain said. "My eyes were bad. Double move. He beat me." Wade Phillips said it was probably his fault for blitzing then, "but it was a little more desperation at that time, although we came back and still had a chance."

The inaugural Texans Twitter mailbag

September, 14, 2013
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We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position-by-position.

Today, we examine defensive backs.

Williamson’s AFC South defensive backs rankings:
1) Texans (Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning, Ed Reed, Kareem Jackson, Brice McCain, D.J. Swearinger, Brandon Harris, Roc Carmichael)
2) Titans (Jason McCourty, Bernard Pollard, Michael Griffin, Alterraun Verner, George Wilson, Tommie Campbell, Coty Sensabaugh)
3) Colts (Vontae Davis, LaRon Landry, Antoine Bethea, Greg Toler, Darius Butler, John Boyett, Cassius Vaughn)
4) Jaguars (Dwayne Gratz, Johnathan Cyprien, Dwight Lowery, Alan Ball, Josh Evans, Mike Harris, Marcus Trufant, Jeremy Harris, Demetrius McCray)

I think this order is virtually impossible to debate, and you should be clicking the top entry in the poll to the right.

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South defensive back units is:

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    68%
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    21%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,681)

My questions for Williamson based off of his list:

Your overall assessment please:

“Overall thoughts are I really like Houston's secondary and really dislike Jacksonville's. The other two? I would say are pretty much the definition of middle of the road.”

What's the gap between Texans and Titans?

“The gap between Houston and Tennessee is substantial. That isn't to say that the Titans have a poor secondary -- and I would say they did improve it at both corner and safety.”

What's Ed Reed have left and what can he do for the Texans?

“Reed's best days are long behind him, but I love the addition to the Texans for one huge reason: He is a winner from a great organization and what he brings behind the scenes could pay off HUGE. The Texans really are not that far from being an expansion team and most of their best players are all home grown players-that have never won the big one. Reed, a future Hall of Famer coming off a SB win brings instant credibility to the locker room and even if he doesn't play at a real high level, is a great addition-and something Houston should have done long ago.”

If you were just ranking CBs what order would you have them in? If you were just ranking safeties?

“Just CBs: I think I would keep it exactly the same. Just safeties? Tough to really gauge Jacksonville, but they still have to be last and again, I think I would keep the order the same. More so than some of the other position groups in the division, this order is pretty clear to me.”

What rookies do you expect to have the biggest impact?

“The rookie defensive back that I expect to make the biggest impact is definitely Cyprien. I think he will be a star in this league, was a great value where Jacksonville took him and will been all around impact player, even early in his career.”

The Titans view McCourty as a solid No. 1 and the Colts feel the same about Davis. Can you compare and contrast them?

“I think both are good cornerbacks, but neither is truly a No. 1. To me, Davis is more talented and more equipped to play coverage against the opponent's No. 1 receiver, but also is more inconsistent overall.”

Can you rate the nickel situations?

“Butler has played well at times for the Colts, but I would say they are a little deficient when they go to sub packages, where Tennessee should be in better shape with their top three corners, as I think Wreh-Wilson should do a fine job (despite some rookie struggles) on the outside in nickel, but this makes the Titans' slot situation very good.”

As for me…

Jackson really blossomed last season when Joseph dealt with a bunch of injuries. If a healthy Joseph returns to form, they could be one of the best cornerback duos in the league. I’ve written about Reed’s swagger and like Williamson, I expect he’ll have a great effect even if he isn’t always playing or isn’t playing quite up to his standards.

Pollard has been outspoken and brings an attitude the Titans have been lacking on defense. He’s an upgrade for certain on early downs. But George Wilson may be the better overall player. I know the Titans will find snaps for all three of their guys and not just in a three-safety nickel or dime package.

The Colts secondary improvement is likely to hinge on health. Can Toller stay on the field after dealing with elbow, back, foot, hip and hamstring injuries in his first four seasons? Landry has a repaired Achilles but recovered for a complete season last year with the Jets. Without either of them, depth would quickly be tested with guys like Cassius Vaughn or Joe Lefeged potentially in nickel and dime packages.

A lot of people are going to have terrible expectations of the Jaguars. But kids can play well quickly in the secondary, and from what I saw at minicamp, Cyprien is my pick for defensive breakout player in the division. Gratz looked good too. Lowery is solid as the other safety. They need cornerbacks to emerge but could surpass expectations.
How does each AFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Houston Texans

News that No. 1 cornerback Johnathan Joseph had sports hernias repaired early in the offseason was actually a good development. He was even more hurt than we knew last year, which serves to explain why he was hardly the player in 2012 he had been in 2011. A healthy Joseph will be much better. Kareem Jackson blossomed as the second corner, and Brice McCain returns as a fairly steady nickel. Danieal Manning is the strong safety with Ed Reed roaming and ball hawking as the deeper guy. Rookie D.J. Swearinger should work as the third safety and be an upgrade over the two guys who played in that role a year ago. He’s also insurance for the aging Reed. Corner depth is a concern, but isn’t that the case for almost every team? I expect big things from this group.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are counting on free-agent addition Greg Toler as a starting corner opposite Vontae Davis. If he pans out as they project, they will improve. If he doesn’t, the depth is poor with Cassius Vaughn still in the mix. Darius Butler is a quality nickel cornerback. Antoine Bethea should be back to form when given a better partner at safety in free-agent acquisition LaRon Landry, provided Landry stays healthy. Safety depth has Joe Lefeged at the head of the line. He can be productive in spot duty, but if they need him for a long stretch, it’ll be an issue. Toler’s production in an expanded role and Landry’s health are the two big keys.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have an incredibly young group. Safety Dwight Lowery and likely starting cornerback Alan Ball are entering their sixth seasons. The other starting safety will be John Cyprien, a second-round pick, and the other starting cornerback will be Dwayne Gratz, a third-rounder. Depth is a major question. The nickelback could be the wise old man of the group -- Marcus Trufant -- or second-year man Mike Harris or a player to be determined. Primary depth will come from three more rookies: corner Demetrius McCray and Jeremy Harris and safety Josh Evans. Cyprien already looks excellent, and Gratz was very good in minicamp. Still, inexperience will be a big factor in this defensive backfield.

Tennessee Titans

Free safety Michael Griffin's game has dropped off significantly in recent years. At least part of it has been the team’s inability to allow him to be the center fielder, which is what he should be best at. With veterans Bernard Pollard and George Wilson added to man the strong safety spot, Griffin has a chance to be a lot better. Jason McCourty is a topflight corner. The other job can be wrestled away from Alterraun Verner as the Titans look to play more man coverage with Tommie Campbell or rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson in contention. Coty Sensabaugh is a developing nickel, and Verner has a knack for the job as well. They need a better push up front to help them all out.
Johnathan Joseph was nowhere near the player he was in 2011 and 2012.

He was banged up in his second year with the Houston Texans, but groin, quad and hamstring injuries weren’t enough to account for the drop-off in his performance.

As we noted in our “Reading the coverage” file this morning, Joseph revealed there was more to it than that.

He told James Palmer of CSN Houston he had two sports hernias.

From Palmer:
"With the groin issues and everything behind me and the sports hernia on both sides, I had both those fixed," Joseph said Thursday. "Now I have more pop, more explosion with my legs. I can run all day again."

Joseph is feeling better than ever and was anxious to get back on the field to test his finally healthy legs.

"I'm just glad to have it behind me," Joseph said. "I'm feeling better than I've ever felt. I told somebody that yesterday. I was just excited that I got it fixed just to see where I am at on the field. And I'm having probably the best OTAs I've had in four or five years."

Great OTAs don’t mean much.

A far healthier Joseph during the season can mean a great deal to the Texans.

Kareem Jackson blossomed last year when Joseph fell off. If Jackson can maintain his gains and Joseph can maintain his health, the Texans should be formidable at corner, where Brice McCain was re-signed as the nickelback.

With Ed Reed and rookie D.J. Swearinger now in the spots where Glover Quin and Quintin Demps were last year. (Demps wound up yielding time as the third safety to Shioh Keo. Demps is gone and Keo needs to play far less with Swearinger around.)

Quin will be missed, but overall the secondary should come out ahead.
Reading the coverage…

My interview with Greg Cossel of NFL Films ran through the Titans new acquisitions and touched on what the Colts have done. (Audio.)

Houston Texans

The Texans re-signed cornerback Brice McCain while free-agent safety Ed Reed mulls their offer, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

At the owners meetings, Gary Kubiak spoke of the players the Texans have lost, the health status of some injured guys and some other issues facing his team right now. From McClain.

Player safety is a priority, but hitting has to maintain its place in football, says Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle.

Kubiak said receiver DeVier Posey (Achilles) isn’t expected back until midseason, says Nick Scurfield of the team’s website.

Indianapolis Colts

Matt Hasselbeck is ready to share his wisdom with Andrew Luck, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. “I can help strengthen the team by being ready to go, being a guy the team can count on if necessary,” Hasselbeck said. “The statistics would say your backup quarterback is going to play. Everyone hopes that he doesn’t, but the statistics are that he does.”

Cornerback Cassius Vaughn signed his tender offer and is officially back, says the Star.

Were the Colts free agents worth the money? It's a difficult question to answer before we see them take a snap, but Matt Shedd at Colts Authority takes a crack at it.

Jacksonville Jaguars


Gus Bradley raved about what he saw from Geno Smith at the West Virginia quarterback’s pro day, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: It’s no surprise Bradley would say good things about the top quarterback in the draft when the Jaguars have the No. 2 pick. It’s dangerous to read a lot into it.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano sees a lot of parallels between this year’s Jaguars and last year’s Colts in terms of roster restocking, says O’Halloran. Minus Luck of course.

Bradley is antsy for April 2, when the Jaguars offseason program starts, and April 15, the day on-field work can begin, says John Oehser of Jaguars.com.

Tennessee Titans

Kenny Britt was found not guilty in his DUI case from last summer, reports Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. Britt was charged when he was stopped as he went through a security gate at Fort Campbell.

Mike Munchak says parting ways with Hasselbeck was unfortunate and that new backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will know his role, says Wyatt.

The Titans agreed to terms with interior offensive lineman Rob Turner, says Wyatt.

To which I say: Ideally Turner will be the swing backup for the two guard spots and center. In a worst-case scenario he'd start at right guard, and that's probably better than last year's alternatives.

General manager Ruston Webster said, regarding upgrading the pass rush at defensive end: I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s probably not a big priority either.” Wyatt has notes from Webster’s conversation with PFT.
Tania Ganguli reports that Houston Texans free agent safety Glover Quin is going to Detroit for a visit with the Lions. Kevin Seifert had an inkling earlier that it was going to unfold this way.

That’s not a good development for Houston, which isn’t going to be able to add a lot in free agency but wanted to work hard to hold together its roster. Quin is a key starter for the Texans, and his versatility -- in terms of coming forward to make tackles, helping against the run or running with receivers in coverage -- is a big cog in Wade Phillips’ system.

Detroit top safety, Louis Delmas, just became an unrestricted free agent.

It’s unclear if the Texans have made any sort of contract proposal to Quin. They passed on a franchise tag worth about $6 million. There are a lot of safety options in free agency and in the draft if the Texans wind up needing to replace Quin.

I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. if he saw any obvious choices among veterans or draft prospects who are Quin-like.

"I don’t think he is as rangy as Quin and has an injury history, but Kenny Phillips of the Giants is a quality safety for sure," he said. "This is a very deep safety draft and while I have a lot of work to still do on draft prospects, guys like Matt Elam, Jonathan Cyprien, Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid and maybe some other guys in the third-round or later could fit that bill. I am not a DeAngelo Hall fan overall, but some seem to be looking at him as a FS with some Quin-like skills as a bit of a CB/FS hybrid."

Two other Texans free agents, cornerback Brice McCain and inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, reached the market with what appear to be unreasonable expectations. They share an agent in David Canter and he said on Houston radio Tuesday that McCain was worth between $3.5 and $5 million annually and that Dobbins deserves a long-term deal with a signing bonus.

I'm guessing we'll have to see what Canter thinks of the value of those two clients in two weeks, when he doesn’t get a sniff of deals like he’s envisioning.

My plan for the Houston Texans

March, 7, 2013
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My plan for the Houston Texans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

Finances: Cut wide receiver Kevin Walter, saving $2.5 million in cap space. Restructure the deal of wide receiver Andre Johnson, reducing his base salary from $10.5 million to $940,000 (giving him the rest now as a bonus), resulting in a salary-cap savings of $7.17 million. Restructure the deal of cornerback Johnathan Joseph, reducing his base salary from $7.5 million to $940,000 (giving him the rest now as a bonus), resulting in a salary-cap savings of $4.373 million. Extend defensive end Antonio Smith, reducing his 2013 base salary of $6 million and his cap charge of $9.5 million significantly.

Continuity: Re-sign safety Glover Quin. The Texans didn’t use the franchise tag on him but would face a tough hole to fill if they let him depart. He’s carved out a good role on this defense, and his staying would be mutually beneficial. In addition to extending Smith and saving money, invest in inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who counts $4.643 million against the cap in the final year of his initial deal and is due $3.143 million in base salary.

Turnover: Allow outside linebacker Connor Barwin to leave as a free agent if he gets a good deal. Although it would be nice to keep him, the team is equipped to move on without him and should be able to draft a player who can be the third guy at the position behind Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus. Brice McCain can be a nice nickel but should be replaceable if he finds an opportunity he prefers. Be done with nose tackle Shaun Cody.

Additions: Sign a free-agent defensive tackle like Roy Miller from Tampa Bay. He’s a good run-stopper who could replace Cody and be better in tandem with Earl Mitchell in Wade Phillips' 3-4 front, which allows for a smaller nose. Mike DeVito (New York Jets) also could work and wouldn’t have to transition to 3-4 thinking.

Draft: Swing big for a wide receiver who can line up opposite Johnson and pose a matchup threat. Perhaps Cal’s Keenan Allen or Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins fits the bill. Tavon Austin from West Virginia, who is smaller and quicker, could give the Texans the sort of weapon they don’t have. Use other early picks on inside linebacker, safety depth and corner/nickel depth. Emphasize linebacker with late picks, looking to boost special-teams coverage and blocking.
Glover Quin Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesA low franchise tag number relative to other positions will make it easier for the Texans to keep safety Glover Quin, if they choose to use the tag on the pending free agent.
The free-agent market for safeties could actually be pretty good.

Among those with expiring contracts are Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, the Giants’ Kenny Phillips, Atlanta’s William Moore, San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson and Houston’s Glover Quin.

It’s a tantalizing list, but it’s sure to shrink.

That pesky franchise tag is dangling out there, threatening to keep quality players at a position of need for Tennessee and Indianapolis from becoming free agents.

At many positions the tag can be prohibitively high. But the new CBA drove the numbers down. Instead of the tag equaling the average of the five highest-paid players at the position, like it was under the old CBA, the new formula is more complex. It uses the average of the five highest-paid players at the position over the past five years and figures in the salary cap, too.

Long story short: Safeties will have a modest tag number of about $6.798 million. Only tight ends and kickers/punters are slated to be lower.

Should teams keep a quality guy for another year for less than $7 million or try to replace him? For most teams, tagging a safety isn’t a tough call at all. I’d guess Byrd, Goldson and Quin will all get tagged if they don’t get long-term deals. If that’s the case, an intriguing safety pool dries up a good deal. Players such as Moore and Phillips, if they are not tagged, could wind up in advantageous negotiating positions.

That’s one reason George Wilson, recently released by the Bills, might be wise to wait. He has a head start -- free agency begins March 12 -- and is slated to visit Detroit on Thursday, a day after he was in Tennessee. But if supply shrinks before free agency starts, demand for him could go up.

For many years, safeties and guards have been relatively cheap players. Many roster architects put a higher priority on other positions, believing it was easier to find serviceable safeties or guards.

Some franchises believe they can draft corners who come up a bit short at the position and shift them inside. Quin came into the league as a corner out of New Mexico. Jacksonville free safety Dwight Lowery, acquired from the Jets in a 2010 trade, played cornerback for his first two years in New York.

Now, it seems safeties are being viewed as more important, but the price tags haven’t necessarily caught up to any new thinking.

“I don’t think people really understand the importance of safety,” Goldson told me at the Super Bowl in a chat about the low franchise tag. “Safety is definitely like quarterback on defense. Everybody looks at [middle linebackers] as more of the captains, but safeties are pretty much the ones who are running the show.

“They are smart football players, they understand defenses and get guys lined up, make adjustments on the fly and they have to know everything. They have to know as much as quarterbacks do on offense."

In Houston, the secondary was not nearly as good in 2012 as it was in 2011. Still, the Texans like their top five guys -- corners Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain and safeties Danieal Manning and Quin.

Quin rates as their most significant pending free agent.

He’s a versatile guy, a converted corner who probably still hasn’t peaked. I expect the team will do what it has to in order to retain him, though the Texans don’t have a lot of cap freedom.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Quin said. “What I would hope happens is a good deal, a long-term deal to stay in Houston, obviously.”

The adjustment of the formula for determining the tags in the new CBA is another example of how poorly the players fared in the deal. Most reports of the change in the tag equation suggested the owners had slipped one past the NFLPA.

The positional groupings for tags also make little sense.

Defensive ends and defensive tackles each have their own number. But on the other side of the ball there is simply an "offensive linemen" umbrella that covers tackles, guards and centers despite the differences in the positions and their prices. It's too broad, which is great for interior guys but terrible for tackles who are worth more.

As for the judgment of the worth of a good safety …

In 2011 the Chargers determined Eric Weddle was worth $19 million guaranteed and as much as $40 million over five years. He’s continued to be excellent for them after getting the deal. In 2012, after initially tagging Michael Griffin, the Titans decided he was worth $35 million over five years with $15 million guaranteed. He remains a symbol of their defensive struggles and needs to be surrounded by better people.

To have a chance to make the Griffin deal look OK, the Titans need to pair him with a better player. If they can’t land Moore, Phillips or Wilson, that guy will have to arrive via the draft.

He must show up somehow.

If the Texans want to maximize their chances to play good defense, they need to hold on to Quin. If the Colts want to improve, they should upgrade from Tom Zbikowski.

The AFC South could be part of getting that franchise tag to grow.

Goldson says the number will rise, that safeties won’t be near the bottom of the list forever.

“I think we’ll get to that point eventually,” he said. “I think the market will go up. I would hope I help drive it up.”

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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    18%
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    15%
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    50%
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    5%
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    12%

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?
Wade PhilipsAP Photo/Patric SchneiderThe Patriots torched Wade Phillips's defense during their Week 14 matchup and won 42-14.
The New England Patriots gobbled up 419 yards and scored six touchdowns against the Houston Texans in a regular season meeting.

The guy who’s got to get the Texans defense ready for a better showing Sunday, Wade Phillips, said the unit’s effort at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 10 wasn’t as bad as it appeared, and believe it can fare far better in Sunday’s divisional round playoff game.

“We always want to execute better,” Phillips said. “We’ll give them some different looks, obviously. But we’ve got to execute. That’s what we do, we try to play fundamentally sound, make it hard to complete the ball on you, those kinds of things.

“We’re going to try, just like we always do, to play the running game and force them into throwing it.”

That’s dangerous, of course, because the guy the Texans want to throw it is Tom Brady who was surgical against them in the regular season blowout and has a stellar playoff record.

Here’s Phillips on some key issues heading into the game:

Attacking Brady: “You’re not going to get to him very much. That’s what he’s great at. He recognizes blitz and changes protections better than anybody in the league, anybody that I’ve ever been around. He finds out where you’re coming from, he’s patient enough to wait and do it at the last second and pick up most. You just don’t see people get to him much. You’ve got to beat some one-on-one blocks, but to get guys clean on him is hard to do.”

Presumptive defensive player of the year J.J. Watt didn’t sack Brady in the first game, but he did hit him four times and was more disruptive in that game than he got credit for.

Defending Welker: The Texans wanted to slow Wes Welker down and did a good job of it. He had three catches for 52 yards. Other pass-catchers hurt the Texans far more in the loss.

That was the first game for Brandon Harris working as the nickelback in place of the injured Brice McCain. The penalty-prone Harris is a lot better now than he was then.

Houston’s top corner, Johnathan Joseph is far healthier this time around. He typically tracks the opponent’s best receiver but stays on the outside. Last week in the win over Cincinnati, Joseph even followed A.J. Green into the slot.

I asked Phillips if we might see Joseph do the same with Welker.

“Ah, Welker’s not Green,” Phillips said. “He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy. He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes. Harris actually played him pretty good. He got a holding penalty that hurt us early in the game. But Harris played pretty well… If we don’t get him on a speed guy, we’re in good shape.”

Joseph will be outside on someone like Brandon Lloyd or even one of the Patriots tight ends.

Speaking of which…

Slowing two top tight ends: Aaron Hernandez ate the Texans up with eight catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. Now Rob Gronkowski, who missed that game with an arm injury, will also be on the field.

“What makes it tough is, they’ve really got two tight ends in there but sometimes it’s like four wide receivers,” Phillips said. “They’re athletic enough to play out in space. So that gives you matchup problems. If you play your base defense against them it’s one thing, and if you play a sub defense against them it’s something else. If you play a sub what happens a lot of times with the two tight ends is they just run over people.

I think you have to mix it up and see how you match up, which players can play them and see if they need help. Do you need somebody to bang them at the line of scrimmage and then rush? If you have matchup problems you’ve got to do those kinds of things.”

Phillips said Hernandez really qualifies as a wide receiver in a lot of situations and indicated the Texans will cover him as such.

“If you put a corner on him they’re not quite as good,” Phillips said. “We hope we can match up well there. If they split him out wide and you put a corner on him instead of a linebacker they may look a little different. We’ll have to see.”

The Texans also insert a third safety to work as an inside linebacker in some situations. Shiloh Keo is slower but more physical than Quintin Demps and has taken over that role recently.

Phillips vs. Belichick: Shalise Manza Young breaks down Phillips’ work against Bill Belichick in this piece.

“He’s a great coach, he does a great job with them obviously,” Phillips said. “I don’t remember ever game we played. He’s had championship teams and winning teams for a long time. They’re always going to be good against anybody. His numbers are going to be good against anybody.”

Rematch attitude: “We talked about it last week -- hey we ought to be confident, look at all the things we’ve done in winning 12 games,” Phillips said. “Going into the Cincinnati game we said let’s get our swag back, we know we’re good, let’s go ahead and play like we play.

“We’ve got confidence going into this game. We feel like we should win. That’s our guys, that’s our mentality.”
Tom Brady and JJ WattGetty ImagesThe Texans sacked Tom Brady, left, just once in their first meeting with the Patriots. Can J.J. Watt and the front seven do a better job in the rematch?

The Patriots seemingly snickered after they blew out Houston on "Monday Night Football" back on Dec. 10.

The Texans arrived in New England wearing letterman jackets that they thought showed team unity, but instead came off as high schoolish, particularly after they were easily dispatched in what Andre Johnson called the biggest game in franchise history.

For the Patriots it was the next game on the schedule.

Before the Texans got on the bus, middle linebacker Bradie James said the Patriots had delivered a lesson in championship football. The Texans headed back to Houston, humbled and officially in a slump. They lost two of their next three, fumbling away the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.

A win over Cincinnati in the wild-card round earned the Texans a trip back to Gillette Stadium.

Can the Texans put up a better fight as major underdogs Sunday? James Walker of the AFC East blog joins me to discuss the game.

Paul Kuharsky: Tom Brady shredded the Texans in that regular-season game, James. He threw four touchdown passes in no time, recognizing Houston couldn’t keep up with his targets, particularly Aaron Hernandez. Now, Brady has Rob Gronkowski back.

Do you see any way the Texans can get Brady off his game at home in the playoffs?

James Walker: The key to stopping Brady is not a secret: You must beat him up. Brady doesn’t like getting hit in the face, especially at age 35. The problem is that is much easier said than done. New England is extremely good at self-scouting and schemes very well to keep Brady upright. Houston got only one sack against Brady in the first meeting, so it was no surprise that he threw four touchdowns. I expect New England to once again keep some running backs and tight ends in protection to keep Houston’s pass rush off Brady. The Texans will need to throw caution to the wind and blitz more defenders than New England has blockers, and that’s where the chess match begins. Brady is tremendous at reading the blitz and rarely gets fooled with coverages. That's why he's so difficult to beat. Speaking of quarterbacks, what do you expect from Houston counterpart Matt Schaub in his first divisional-round playoff game?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Mike Carter/US PresswireMatt Schaub's ability to connect on big plays downfield could be key for the Texans.
PK: Schaub finally had his first playoff experience last week and he’s now 1-0 in the postseason. But facing Cincinnati at home and New England on the road are two different things. He did fine against the Bengals, but I felt like coach Gary Kubiak was especially careful not to require many throws that were even moderately risky -- especially after Schaub threw that bad pick-six. Schaub has a bit of an unfair reputation for not being good in big games, mostly because he hasn't been in many big games. To spring an upset here, he’ll have to supplement the run game with some big plays and, obviously, avoid killer mistakes. To have a chance, the Texans need to really ride Arian Foster. He has gone over 100 yards in all three of his playoff games. He had 19 touches in that regular-season blowout. To maximize their chances, I’d say he’s got to have close to 30 this time.

JW: Paul, I agree: Foster is the biggest key for the Texans in this game. He enters with some momentum after rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown last week against the Bengals. Getting Foster 30 or more productive carries would not only wear on New England’s defense, it would keep the Patriots’ high-scoring, up-tempo offense off the field. New England has thrived this year by getting off more plays and offensive possessions than its opponents. Houston's best chance is to slow down the game and make it ugly. Teams that beat the Patriots this year, such as San Francisco and Baltimore, ran the football well and limited New England’s possessions.

PK: What’s the status of the Patriots' run game? Stevan Ridley ran fine in the regular-season game, gaining 72 yards on 19 carries. He earned a little doghouse time late in the season because of some fumbling issues. Has he regained the trust of Bill Belichick and the staff? And how much does it matter? It’s not as though New England needs to run or is afraid to play a game without handing it off a lot and we know that they will keep throwing it even in a blowout situation. So does it even matter if they can run it?

JW: Trust is big in New England, and Ridley has yet to earn it in the playoffs. Last year Ridley fumbled in the divisional round and didn’t play for the remainder of the postseason. The Patriots do not have the luxury to bench him again this year, which makes Ridley a key player to watch. New England’s offense usually passes to set up the run, but the ground game is more important than most people think. The Patriots rarely blow leads because they can run successfully when they need to. That time usually comes in the second half once they’re ahead.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/John BazemoreStevan Ridley may not figure heavily in the game plan, but he needs to make the most of his opportunities and limit mistakes.
I don’t expect Ridley to be a huge part of the game plan. His carries probably will be in the teens. But he needs to make the most of each carry and take care of the football. If Ridley doesn’t step up, look for the Patriots to go to a more dependable and sure-handed option such as Danny Woodhead. The Texans' defense allowed 42 points and 419 yards in the first meeting. What adjustments will Houston’s defense need to make to be more successful in the rematch?

PK: The coverage has to be way tighter. Johnathan Joseph played in the first meeting but had not been practicing and had missed time with groin and hamstring injuries. Brandon Harris was starting for the first time as the nickel after Brice McCain’s foot injury. The Texans set out to slow Wes Welker and they did, then got killed by everyone else. They know they aren’t going to get more than a sack or two on Brady because of how he gets rid of the ball and how skilled he is at changing protections. I expect they’ll mix it up on Hernandez and Gronkowski but they won’t be afraid to treat them as receivers.

The secondary had a bad night in Foxborough and a bad final quarter of the season. Joseph and Kareem Jackson and safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are all better cover guys than they showed that night, when they were even getting beaten by Donte' Stallworth, who had been back in the league for barely five minutes. They simply have to be better if the Texans are going to be in this game.

JW: I was with you in Houston last weekend, and I noticed the secondary played much better than the last time I saw the Texans in Foxborough. Joseph looked more like himself and did a good job, for the most part, on Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. On the other hand, I think an intriguing matchup will be Patriots corner Aqib Talib against Houston’s Johnson, who had another monster season. Big games and matchups like this are why the Patriots acquired Talib in a midseason trade. He instantly became New England’s best cover corner. The Patriots usually play a lot of zone, but they’ve been able to mix zone and man coverages a lot better in the second half of the season with Talib in the lineup. Houston will have a few opportunities to take shots down the field with Johnson against Talib one-on-one, and I think whoever wins those battles will have an impact on this game.

PK: It’ll be hard for the Texans to pull a surprise if there aren’t a couple of big Schaub-to-Johnson connections.

Houston will arrive in New England with an "us-against-the-world" mentality, because the Texans are heavy underdogs. The Patriots aren’t invincible. But if they start fast, they may look that way to the Texans yet again.

Quick Take: Texans at Patriots

January, 6, 2013
1/06/13
12:15
AM ET
Five things to know about next Sunday’s Houston Texans-New England Patriots AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium:

It was ugly last time: On Dec. 10, on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots smoked the Texans 42-14. New England was up 28-0 in the third quarter and the Texans basically waved the white flag by early in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Bradie James said after it was over that the Patriots had given the Texans a lesson in championship-caliber football. Houston believed if there was a playoff rematch, it would be at Reliant Stadium. But the Texans lost two out of three after that and allowed the No. 1 seed, home-field advantage and a bye week to slip away.

Top QBs shred the Texans: Tom Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in that regular-season meeting. Houston has had a poor season when it comes to defending topflight quarterbacks. Before Brady’s big game, Peyton Manning (in a loss) and Aaron Rodgers (in a win) had also posted big numbers against the Texans. What could be different this time? Well, Connor Barwin was better as a pass-rusher against Cincinnati than he has been much of this season, and if he can add to the threat J.J. Watt provides, that would help. And while cornerback Johnathan Joseph struggled in that initial meeting, Houston’s top corner is as healthy now as he has been in a long time.

The Gronk factor: The Texans struggled with Aaron Hernandez in the first matchup, as he caught eight passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns. As good as Hernandez is, Rob Gronkowski tends to present even more of a matchup problem. He missed the first game as he recovered from a broken arm. Brian Cushing might be good against him, but the Texans inside linebacker has been out since October after suffering a torn ACL. Nickelback Brice McCain just missed his fifth game since surgery to repair a broken foot. If the Texans were at full strength, Gronkowski would be a matchup problem -- and he and Hernandez together could be a giant problem. Minus two guys who might be able to do some effective work in that department, the Texans could really struggle to keep Brady from finding Gronkowski and Hernandez.

The third-down story: Heading into the regular-season meeting, the Texans were allowing offenses to convert just 28.2 percent of third downs and Bill Belichick raved about that facet of Bulls on Parade. Brady and the Patriots converted 50 percent in the win, and Houston’s defense finished the season allowing 33.0 percent. But in nine third-down opportunities in the wild-card playoff game Saturday at Reliant Stadium, the Bengals didn’t convert once. The Texans have their confidence back in that department, though they know the New England offense is a whole different deal than Cincinnati’s was.

Will the weather matter? The Texans beat the Bears at Soldier Field on Nov. 11 on a cold, rainy Chicago night that was super windy. Chicago’s offense is not as threatening or high-powered as New England’s, however. If Sunday afternoon is a blustery, Northeastern winter day, it’s less than ideal for the Texans. That’s part of why those failed chances to earn home-field advantage were so big.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

Don’t only blame the offense, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. The Texans gave up 29 touchdown passes this season compared to 18 in 2011. And they’ve allowed 54 completions of 20 or more yards. Of the playoff teams, only New England (74) and Washington (58) allowed more.

To which I say: McClain says it’s been the safeties more than the corners. The only big difference has been at nickelback, where Brice McCain has been out. That should not make this much of a difference.

The offensive line’s drop-off has been one of the big issues slowing the Texans down, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle.

Injuries have left the Texans with little depth at inside linebacker, say Ganguli and Robertson. Darryl Sharpton is on IR and Tim Dobbins may not be able to play.

Analysts have their doubts about the Texans, says David Barron of the Chronicle.

Dumb penalties are getting the Texans off their down-and-distance schedule, the tight ends need to do more and special teams need to avoid big mistakes, says Stephanie Stradley of the Chronicle blogs.

Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck is the only No. 1 overall pick to deliver his team to the postseason as a rookie, writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. “He understands the enormity of what's ahead, but plans on doing nothing more than what he did while prepping for his first 16 NFL games.”

The ancient grudge Baltimore has for the Colts still exists, writes Bob Kravitz of the Star. The Colts need to plant an early seed of doubt in the Ravens who struggled at the end of the season.

To which I say: I think the Ravens have to carry some degree of doubt whether the Colts do something early or not. We’ll find out how much of a bearing momentum has when the Ravens greet the hot Colts.

Reinforcements are arriving off the Colts injury list, says Phil Richards of the Star.

Vontae Davis won AFC defensive player of the week for his work against the Texans, says Richards.

The Colts have the potential to make this Ray Lewis’ last game.

Everything you need to know about the Colts-Ravens game from ESPN Stats and Info.

For the players and coaches, this week has nothing to do with the history between the teams, or the Irsays, or crab cakes, or moving trucks, says Marcus Dugan of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

With the future of Mike Mularkey and his staff up in the air, we don’t yet know if the Jaguars will coach the Senior Bowl, says Ryan O’Halloran.

To which I say: It’s nice for the staff to work with the kids for a week, but it won’t kill the franchise if it misses out.

Arizona executive Steve Keim is another candidate for Jaguars general manager, writes O’Halloran.

Tennessee Titans

Matt Hasselbeck is OK with a backup role with the Titans going forward, says John Glennon of The Tennessean. “I feel good about the people we have here,” Hasselbeck said. “I feel good about the people in charge. I feel good about the plan.”

To which I say: He remains an excellent guy to have in the locker room. But when the backup quarterback is the offense’s best leaders, there is an issue.

Titans like Eddie George recall the pride and pain of facing Lewis, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

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