AFC South: Chris Brown

Matt SchaubAP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Texans are hoping to have a more balanced offense in 2010, one where quarterback Matt Shaub doesn't have to pass for 4,700 yards.
HOUSTON -- Grade the 2009 Texans as incomplete in at least two ways: They came up short of their playoff goal and they didn’t have the sort of run game needed for a well-rounded offense.

Matt Schaub confesses he was baffled as he watched film on a lot of Mondays and considered Houston’s effective play-action passing game a lynchpin of the Texans' offense. After all, run success is supposed to be a prerequisite for successful play action.

“When you go back and watch the game and you might have run the ball 20 times and you had 40 yards but we were able to complete six or our eight play-passes for 120 yards and you’re like, ‘Why is this guy biting up on the run fake when we weren’t effective with it?’” Schaub said.

“I guess it might just be defensive players’ mindsets. When he sees that ball put out there, it’s like mouse to cheese in the trap, they just want to bite on it. And we’re just fortunate to have the receivers to get in behind there and had the timing of the play to make it work.”

[+] EnlargeFoster
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesArian Foster was running well for the Texans late last season.
Andre Johnson said defenses were still wary of Steve Slaton busting big runs like he did as a rookie in 2008, but Slaton was benched with fumbling issues and struggled with a neck injury that prompted him to miss the final five games.

“I think if you look at our season last year and the run game is working, we’re easily 11-5,” Johnson said.

For the follow-up version of the Texans to finally break through to the playoffs, the run game will have to rank better than 30th and average better than 3.5 yards a carry and 92.2 yards a game.

“We were not running the ball the way we needed last year to be, like you said, complete,” general manager Rick Smith said. “I think it starts up front and I think our offensive line will be better… If we get more balance, everything gets better. Our defense improves if we can run the football better and control the clock.”

The personnel’s not been revamped, with just one new running back (second-rounder Ben Tate) and one new offensive lineman who might break into the lineup (guard-center Wade Smith.)

Slaton is coming back from neck surgery and Arian Foster is coming off a strong showing late in the year, with 39 carries for 214 yards in the final two games.

Out of those ingredients, the Texans expect to find their balance.

If they do, it could mean Schaub doesn’t have to throw for 4,770 yards and that Houston doesn’t have to watch a 9-7 season come up short in a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot in the AFC.

“I don’t think you really want to throw for 4,600, 4700 yards in this offense,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “You want to maybe break the 4,000 mark, maybe be in the high 3,000s and mix the rest of it into runs.

“Even though we might have put up more points last year and maybe were considered a more explosive offense last year, I think we were a better offense in 08. I think that dynamic when Steve had almost 1,300 yards his rookie year, we just had so many different choices, we were spreading the ball around to so many different guys.”

If the Texans can get back in the range of 4.3 yards a carry they had in 2008, can convert short-yardage situations better than they did when they too often used the since-departed Chris Brown and can avoid the fumble problems that were connected to Slaton’s neck injury, we could see dramatic improvement.

And the offense was already the league’s fourth-rated in yardage and 10th-rated in scoring even with last year’s run troubles.

Schuab said he’ll happily sacrifice passing yards for wins. But knows if that play-action was working with the anemic and non-threatening run game, it can really be effective if Slaton, Tate and Foster are running better, behind more effective blocking.

“Then you’re begging people to chomp even more on the bite and you’re bringing a safety down hopefully in the box to create to eight-man fronts and then you’re one on one outside and that’s where even bigger plays will happen for us,” he said.

The Texans were throwing the ball even while protecting a lead last season, which is hardly the ideal route when you want to be sure the clock continues to run.

Balancing the offense means more effective handoffs in situations like the 4:00 drill, when the offense is looking for a couple first downs that make an opponent burn timeouts as it tries to drain the life from the game, preserving a lead. The team worked on that this week.

“You control the tempo, you control the clock so much better you keep teams honest,” Schaub said. “With a more balance attack like that, it can open things up even more in the passing game.

"Granted, we won’t throw for 4,700 yards. That’s fine. If we throw for 3,000 and we run for 2,700 that’s fine, as long as we’re getting a W.”
Here’s an interesting piece on running backs that seeks to produce an Elusive Rating.

No AFC South backs are in the top 10 or bottom 10 of the ratings, however, which makes me skeptical. It's hard to name 10 backs more elusive than Chris Johnson.

There is AFC South stuff in the yards after contact section, though.

Pro Football Focus says Houston’s Chris Brown got 77.53 percent of his 267 rushing yards, after contact. No other AFC South backs are in the ultimate top 10 or bottom five put together here. It’s of note that of the 20 backs listed, only two had more than 600 yards rushing.

By PFF’s count, Chris Johnson had a 1,000-yard season after contact:
"Everybody knows what a fantastic season Chris Johnson had, topping 2,000 yards rushing, but how many people know that he notched 1,071 of those rushing yards after contact? Only 12 other rushers in the NFL surpassed that mark with their rushing totals. Johnson gained more yards after contact in 2009 than 50 other runners on this list gained in total rushing yards. While Johnson topped the league in [yards after contact, or YCo] -- as well as rushing yards -- last season, it wasn't by nearly the same distance from the chasing pack. Three other rushers were able to record more than 900 yards after contact, and not one of them came within 500 yards of Johnson's league-leading 2,006-yard rushing total. Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson all recorded more than 65 percent of their rushing yards after first contact."

I tend to have something like this as a standard disclaimer when talking PFF: It looks at a lot of offbeat stuff, and in a case like this there is a large subjective element. I can’t tell you how consistent they are in that subjectivity or whether they can compute what they are looking to compute. I can tell you they are great for generating discussion.
Steve SlatonStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSteve Slaton is eager to bounce back from a subpar sophomore season, and he's not averse to sharing carries if it helps the team.
The sign on the road Steve Slaton is traveling is a common one in the NFL for a guy coming off a poor season:

Uncertainty ahead.

In a 15-minute chat with him this morning, I sensed he’s got a handle on that, and is fine with it. He’s ready to prove himself again, plug into the Texans' offense in whatever way he’s asked to and wipe the tarnish off his name that came with a shaky sophomore season.

Something his coach, Gary Kubiak, told him after an outstanding 1,282-yard rookie season in 2008 proved prophetic.

“You come out of a rookie year where you gain 1,100-1,200 yards you think, ‘Damn, this is a pretty easy deal,'" Kubiak said. “I teased with him before the season and said 'The next 1,200 you gain will probably be the toughest of your career. It’s not that easy.’”

Slaton’s still got 763 yards to go to get there after a poor 2009, when he gained only 3.3 yards per carry and fumbled seven times before a neck injury ended his season after 11 games.

By the time he went on injured reserve, he said he had a numb right arm from the top of his shoulder to his thumb, all day every day for two months. A pinched nerve led to a C-5 cervical fusion in mid-January.

He felt the difference as soon as he woke up and doctors told him it went as smoothly as possible and rate his recovery, tabbed to take four to six months, as very good. He said he will be ready for training camp, holding the ball high and tight.

He’s been rehabbing since surgery and can now run and lift weights as long as he limits the stress on his neck.

“Everybody wants to come in their second year and never have that slump, and not have an excuse for something you think you can help,” he said. “It was uncharacteristic of myself to fumble that much. I won’t say it was the only thing, but I think it was a big part.”

A revamped run game is the team’s offensive objective this offseason. The Texans were a bad rushing team no matter who carried the ball, Kubiak emphasized. That was on the running backs, the line, the scheme and the coaches.

Guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel were lost for the season early on, and with Kasey Studdard and Chris White in their place, the interior line was a weakness.

“We regressed in there, not by lack of effort, just by young players having to play,” Kubiak said.

As the Texans seek to boost the run game and give a great pass game featuring Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson better balance, Slaton should be part of a new backfield combination.

If the price falls on a veteran free agent such as Chester Taylor or Thomas Jones, maybe one of them could be getting carries. If they don’t see a value there, the Texans will attack the spot in the draft.

After failing with Ahman Green and Chris Brown, the popular thinking and the team’s tenor suggest the Texans will address other areas in free agency and look for the running back in the draft.

“That has been a young man’s position in this business for a while,” Kubiak said.

So the expectation is that Slaton is the team’s quick back and the Texans will attempt to bring in a bigger guy who can be effective in short yardage and goal-line situations.

“I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the smallest guy,” said Slaton, who was listed as 5-foot-9, 215 at season’s end. “This league spits out running backs, they don’t last too long. So to have somebody to help in certain situations is good. I want to be the guy when the game is on the line, you give me the ball.

“… As a running back, you’re always stingy but you’ve got to be smart. If it helps the team, if I can’t get it done and somebody else can get it done, then I’ll gladly let that person come in and handle that job. But my thing is I want to be that go-to guy, I’ve always been that, that’s what I pride myself on.”

While he’s encouraged by his recovery, ESPN’s resident physical therapist Stephania Bell put up a caution flag. (See sidebar.)

“He will need to work diligently to strengthen the stabilizing muscles around his neck (very deep muscles) as well as all the muscles in the upper back that help support the neck,” she said of going forward with the neck issue. “While he can very well be cleared to return -- and he can indeed go on to have success and not have another major incident -- there is inherently more risk, simply because of what he has been through.”

Kubiak doesn’t sound like he wants to distribute carries by preset formula, just the flexibility to use two different quality options in situations in which they excel. Offensive line/run game guru Alex Gibbs is no longer on the coaching staff, but Kubiak said the team has invested a lot of time in his zone blocking scheme and will stick with it, adding a few things.

One-cut-and-go backs are usually the guys who fit it well, though Kubiak said he’d be fine with two cuts.

Slaton is good with 20 carries in a game, Kubiak said, and actually runs better in the second half than he does at the start.

“But I think like anybody else in this league if you put the whole load on him, you can wear him down pretty damn quick, so we need a complement to him,” he said. “… Obviously there is a place in this league for that guy, there is no doubt. He can make big plays. And then there is a place for a guy who can take a little bit more of a pounding and be a short-yardage and red zone guy. I think there is a place for those two guys in the league.

“The bottom line is we’ve just got to get another good player to go with him.”

AFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
9:16
AM ET
Houston Texans

Potential unrestricted free agents: CB Dunta Robinson, WR Kevin Walter, RB Chris Brown, DT Jeff Zgonina, G Chester Pitts, S Brian Russell, S Nick Ferguson, LS Bryan Pittman, LB Chaun Thompson, QB Rex Grossman, LB Khary Campbell, G Tutan Reyes, T Ephraim Salaam, P Matt Turk.

Potential restricted free agents: DL Tim Bulman, S John Busing, OT Rashad Butler, TE Owen Daniels, RB Ryan Moats, S Bernard Pollard, LB DeMeco Ryans, G Chris White.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: I don’t think the Texans will jump out and make any monumental moves. But by deciding not to tag Robinson they created another hole and saved themselves big dollars. With needs at corner, running back, free safety, interior offensive line and defensive tackle they may have more than they can address in one draft. That means they could jump out for one significant free agent – like they did last year with defensive lineman Antonio Smith -- and maybe another less expensive one or two.

Indianapolis Colts

Potential unrestricted free agents: MLB Gary Brackett, K Matt Stover.

Potential restricted free agents: WR Hank Baskett, S Antoine Bethea, S Melvin Bullitt, OL Dan Federkeil, CB Aaron Francisco, LB Tyjuan Hagler, CB Marlin Jackson, CB Tim Jennings, DT Antonio Johnson, OT Charlie Johnson, LB Freddy Keiaho, DT Dan Muir, CBPR T.J. Rushing.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: Brackett is priority one and the team has indicated a plan to pay him as an upper-echelon guy. The restricted list includes a lot of key guys who will remain big factors next year. Indy is not a team that looks to bring in many outsiders for big roles and it won’t start now. Bill Polian’s said the Colts will sit back and see how things unfold in the new capless landscape.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Reggie Hayward, G Kynan Forney.

Potential restricted free agents: DT Atiyyah Ellison, LB Clint Ingram, DL Greg Peterson.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Jaguars are draft-reliant, but will also shop for bargains in free agency, hoping to plug a couple holes with high-character guys with upside who fit what they are doing. As for a big splash, it’s unlikely based on their recent busts with big-name free agents like Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence and the direction they’ve moved since.

Tennessee Titans

Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, C Kevin Mawae, LB Keith Bulluck, TE Alge Crumpler, CB Nick Harper, CB Rod Hood, DE Jevon Kearse, S Kevin Kaesviharn.

Potential restricted free agents: DE Dave Ball, DT Tony Brown, TE Bo Scaife, LB Stephen Tulloch, DT Kevin Vickerson, RB LenDale White.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Titans will undergo a youth movement, especially on defense where Vanden Bosch and Bulluck, who’s recovering from ACL repair, are going to be allowed to walk. Mawae been told his only chance to return is as a backup at a backup price. Brown, Scaife and Tulloch are important guys they’ll want to retain. Beyond that, expect mostly bargain shopping.

Should Texans consider Jones?

March, 1, 2010
3/01/10
4:17
PM ET
LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook were quick nos for me when I lined them up with the Texans.


Jerome Davis/Icon SMIRecently-released running back Thomas Jones could be a good fit for the Texans.
Tomlinson’s simply worn down and Westbrook’s injury-prone and more of a dual threat than the goal-line short yardage banger the Texans covet.

But Thomas Jones I’m not so sure about.

Yes, everyone is wary of a back over 30 and Jones will be 31 in August. But the guy about to be released by the Jets is a sculpted. He’s coming off a season with the most carries of his career, averaging 4.2 yards a carry, the third best number of his 10-year career. In 148 NFL games over 10 years, he’s averaged 17.4 touches on offense, a significantly smaller number than LT’s 24.2.

“I like him more than Westbrook and a lot more than LT, for anyone,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. told me. “Yes, he still has juice left and would be best in a tandem with a dynamic type (like a healthy Slaton). He isn't flashy, but he has a very professional approach to playing the position. He runs hard and doesn't make many bad decisions. It is a different scheme that what he ran in New York, but I do think Jones could be successful against unstacked boxes in Houston. Would say he is an above average goal line runner.”

Ahman Green was a failed attempt at getting a veteran running back for Houston, but they were looking for a primary back then. Chris Brown was a failed attempt as getting a veteran complimentary back, but he was cheap and miscast.

Jones could be a different deal if the price is right.

I believe the Texans would like to draft a back.

But after letting Dunta Robinson walk, their need list is pretty lengthy: corner back, running back, interior offensive lineman, interior defensive lineman, free safety. Go into the draft with five needs, the odds of filling them all sufficiently with first-year players seems slim.

So I’d say they need to fill one or two of them in free agency -- by landing an unrestricted or by luring away a restricted with an offer sheet or through a trade.

Given that, they have to seriously examine Jones, especially if no one else pounces on him when free agency opens Friday.

“He's a beast,” says Tim Graham, my sworn enemy who works this job on the AFC East. “Known for being a freak in terms of his physique. He will be a good complementary back anywhere he doesn't have to shoulder the whole load. Not just goal line, either. He broke some long runs this past season.”
Looking at the players who will be at least restricted free agents, I’ve thought several times about some guys who could move within the AFC South and be a big boost to a team that’s gotten used to facing them twice a year.

We've seen free agent movement in the division before: The Titans absorbed David Thornton, Nick Harper and Jake Scott from Indianapolis and the Jaguars signed Mike Peterson away from the Colts. Houston signed Chris Brown when Tennessee was done with him. And Indy signed Antonio Johnson off the Titans' practice squad.

Any team in the league would love to add a premium middle linebacker like DeMeco Ryans or a top-flight tight end like Owen Daniels. I’m not going to plug those guys in because it’s too easy.

But here’s a team-by-team look at who from the other three teams would qualify as a great or smart (or great and smart) addition based on existing needs. Keep in mind, this is for a world where these players could be had and where the team getting them could afford the move:

Houston

Titans running back LenDale White worked well in tandem with Chris Johnson before Johnson took over in 2009. The Texans need a bigger back who can handle short-yardage and goal line situations to pair with Steve Slaton.

Colts free safety Antoine Bethea is rangy and composed, and the Texans haven’t had a guy who fits that bill in recent memory. I’d love to see him paired with Bernard Pollard and think those two could be the best tandem in the division.

Indianapolis

We know the Colts won’t be free agent shopping as it’s against their nature, and there are no top-flight offensive tackles or return men coming free in the division. A healthy Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck would be something playing alongside Gary Brackett (priority one for the Colts) and Clint Session. Kyle Vanden BoschDwight Freeney and Robert Mathis could be nice too. But again, the Colts are pretty much anti-outsiders and anti-age, so neither is in the realm of possibility beyond the parameters of this entry. as the third pass rushing end after

Jacksonville

Vanden Bosch would bring the experience and work ethic that could set the tone for the Jaguars’ young line. The Titans may think KVB is finished. I am not so sure. I think someone will probably outspend the Jags here, they don’t plan on being big players in free agency. But this would be a fantastic marriage.

Though the Jaguars tend to go bigger, Titans center Kevin Mawae would be a nice addition to the offensive line where Brad Meester is expected to be replaced. Meester’s 22 pounds heavier. Mawae’s leadership and craftiness would be great. But I expect the Jaguars will go younger, not older.

Tennessee

If the Titans added Brackett and inserted him in the middle, shifting Stephen Tulloch outside opposite Gerald McRath, that could be a solid lineup at a position undergoing a transformation. But look for the Colts to re-sign Brackett and the Titans to shop for a veteran outside guy.

Houston corner Dunta Robinson is getting older and brings a bit of baggage from the way he handled last year’s franchise tag. He may be starting to slip. But put him opposite Cortland Finnegan in Tennessee’s defensive backfield and he’d be a great upgrade from Nick Harper, who will be gone, or Ryan Mouton or Jason McCourty.

I think two of these are actually conceivable -- White to Houston and Vanden Bosch to Jacksonville. What do you think? And who’d I miss in considering some cross-pollination?

AFC South Team Wrap-ups

January, 6, 2010
1/06/10
2:32
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South
Clayton: Video | AFC grades ... NFC More: Fantasy MVPs | FB Outsiders | Awards

A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.

Houston Texans

Final Power Ranking: 14

Biggest surprise: Despite losing tight end Owen Daniels to injury along the way, quarterback Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson connected consistently, even as defenses keyed on minimizing the receiver. Johnson led the league in receiving with 1,569 yards -- 221 yards more than No. 2 Wes Welker. Schaub answered questions about his durability by starting all 16 games, earning a $10 million option bonus to trigger the remainder of his contract in the process.

Biggest disappointment: The inability of Kris Brown to hit clutch kicks and running back Chris Brown to convert clutch chances. In back-to-back November losses to Indianapolis and Tennessee, the kicker had chances to force overtime and missed on each occasion. The running back was miscast as a short-yardage answer, and his ineffectiveness hurt the Texans at the end of losses to Jacksonville and Arizona.

Biggest need: The Texans have issues in the secondary, where free safety and cornerback need to be upgraded. But this is an offensive team and, even when running back Steve Slaton was healthy and running behind a healthy starting line, it didn’t run well enough to complement the pass attack. The Texans need a big back who can gain a tough yard.

Team MVP: Johnson. He consistently produced despite extra defensive attention, putting his combination of size and speed to the best use yet.

Contract issues pending: Three key members of the Texans -- Daniels, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and strong safety Bernard Pollard -- will lose chances at unrestricted free agency if there is no new CBA. In that case, they would be restricted free agents. They won’t be happy playing for one-year tenders and the Texans need to find a way to smooth things out with them.


Indianapolis Colts

Final Power Ranking: 1

Biggest surprise: Rookie cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey were supposed to be role players. But injuries in the secondary meant they were each starters for the majority of the season. Both did very well doing what the Colts asked of them. Overall, the secondary got little from three of four projected starters, with only free safety Antoine Bethea a consistent presence. But the Colts defense played very well anyway, giving up few big plays when Randy Moss wasn’t involved.

Biggest disappointment: Passing on a chance to try to carry a perfect regular season into the playoffs was a biggie. Team brass was clearly put off, and surprised, by the volume and depth of the media and fan backlash after the Colts pulled starters and handed the Jets a game that dropped the Colts to 14-1. To suggest records for wins in a decade and consecutive regular season wins were more historic than a perfect 19-0 season sure seemed silly during the spin control period.

Biggest need: Offensive linemen. Charlie Johnson did admirable work after he was promoted to replace the disappointing Tony Ugoh at left tackle and Kyle DeVan was a more physical right guard after replacing another underachiever, Mike Pollak. With legendary line coach Howard Mudd set to retire, the Colts need to restock and provide more options for his successor, Pete Metzlaars.

Team MVP: Peyton Manning is expected to win NFL MVP, so it would be hard to look anywhere else. He was exceptionally accurate and was a big reason young receivers developed and old targets produced. And it seemed like he led his team to a fourth-quarter comeback weekly.

Next men up: Anthony Gonzalez was expected to be the team’s No. 2 receiver behind Reggie Wayne. But he went down with a serious knee injury in the season opener and never made it back. Rookie Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon were effective targets for Manning when opponents worked hard to blanket Wayne and forced the Colts to go elsewhere.


Jacksonville Jaguars

Final Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: They called it a retooling instead of a rebuilding, but after major roster turnover the Jaguars were 6-4 and 7-5 and very much in the thick of a hunt for an AFC playoff berth. They got quality experience for four high draft picks who started a lot of games -- offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, cornerback Derek Cox and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.

Biggest disappointment: David Garrard was sacked 42 times and hit way too much. The Jaguars failed badly in two West Coast trips, losing in Seattle and San Francisco, and closed with a four-game losing streak. Losses to Indianapolis and at New England were understandable, but defeats at home to Miami and at Cleveland in the season finale with an 8-8 record on the line were a lot harder to accept.

Biggest need: Though the team traded up for Derrick Harvey and took a second defensive end, Quentin Groves, with their first two picks just two years ago, it’s in desperate need of pass rush help. The team had just 14 sacks. Quarterbacks often had all day to throw and managed a 96.0 passer rating, 28 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions against Jacksonville.

Team MVP: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew fared very well in his first season as the team’s feature back and is the franchise’s lone Pro Bowler. He ran for 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns behind an inconsistent line.

Mighty have fallen: Free safety Reggie Nelson, the team’s top pick in 2007, could be on his way out. He was consistently burned in coverage and failed to finish tackles. The team tried him at cornerback when injuries thinned out that position and he fared no better. By season’s end, he earned himself a spot on the bench.


Tennessee Titans

Final Power Ranking: 16

Biggest surprise: Chris Johnson showed himself to be an electrifying playmaker in his first season. But when he said in training camp before his rookie campaign he would run for 2,000 yards, people scoffed. Improbably, on a non-winning team, Johnson ran for a league-leading 2,006 yards, becoming just the sixth member of the 2,000-yard club. He topped 100 yards rushing in each of his final 11 games and scored on seven rushing plays of 20 yards or more.

Biggest disappointment: After a 13-3 regular season that was the NFL’s best in 2008, the 2009 team played terribly early and dug itself an 0-6 hole. While it did well climbing out and finishing 8-8, that miserable start cost the Titans a chance at a return to the playoffs. The slow start featured a slew of drops by the receivers, horrific pass coverage, and return game nightmares. The turnaround began after team owner Bud Adams called for Jeff Fisher to replace Kerry Collins with Vince Young at quarterback.

Biggest need: Defensive playmakers. The Titans got old and less effective at several spots. Defensive end Jevon Kearse and cornerback Nick Harper won’t be back. The team is likely ready to move on from veteran linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton as well. Free safety Michael Griffin took a huge step backwards and defensive tackle Jason Jones couldn’t fight through a shoulder injury. The Titans will look to add veterans and draft picks to rebuild.

Team MVP: Johnson should be the NFL’s offensive player of the year. Without him, who knows what the Titans would have done down the stretch. Getting him to 2,000 yards was a unifying team goal. Johnson even impressed his teammates by backing up the bold 2,000-yard prediction.

Back from the dead: While he didn’t finish especially strong, Young did a lot of good work in 10 games after he was reinserted as the starter. He deserves credit for maturing. His decision making has improved. He's set himself up to be the Titans starter in 2010 after changing the opinion of many of his critics, some of whom reside inside team headquarters.

AFC South draft rewind

December, 23, 2009
12/23/09
3:03
PM ET
NFC Draft Rewind: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft class lists: Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Houston | Tennessee

Houston Texans
Cushing
Cushing

Best get: Not everyone was sold on Brian Cushing coming out of USC, often because of his injury history at USC. He missed most of camp hurt and has missed a lot of practices, but none of it has gotten in the way of his being an impact player every Sunday. The Texans need more defenders and more players in his mold. He’s a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate.

Worst unaddressed spot: The Texans had plenty of reason to expect they had a feature back in Steve Slaton, but completely misread their situation after that. Interior line injuries and a second-year slump for Slaton have made a second back even more important, and Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and Arian Foster all have proved incapable of handling the pressures of the work. A second running back ranks as one of the team’s highest priorities in free agency or the 2010 draft.

Still uninvolved: Tight end James Casey came in as a versatile fifth-rounder who was going to be a unique weapon for head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to tinker with. He’s got six catches for 64 yards in 11 games. He needs to have more of an impact, given that the Texans lost top-flight tight end Owen Daniels to a season-ending knee injury.

Indianapolis Colts
Brown
Brown

Still to be determined: First-rounder Donald Brown has shown he will be a good NFL player. But he’s missed five games with injuries, including the last three. He’s more capable than Joseph Addai of breaking off a big run. The question: Does Brown understand that looking for the big gain isn’t worth risking a play resulting in second-and-12. If Brown is healthy, he could see a lot of touches in the last two games. The Colts are 14-0 with just 59 carries, 263 yards and two TDs from their top pick. (They haven’t gotten much out of second-round defensive tackle Fili Moala, either.)

A perfect fit: Fourth-round receiver Austin Collie, not Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, leads all rookie receivers in catches. Collie's nabbed 53 passes for 567 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a perfect fit for the Colts' system, and adopted the necessary work ethic to win over and work with Peyton Manning. Whether Anthony Gonzalez re-emerges for the post season push or not, Collie’s crucial to it.

Best special teams addition: The Colts had eight touchbacks in 2008. With rookie punter Pat McAfee taking over kickoffs from Adam Vinatieri, they have 18 with two games remaining. Better kickoffs are a big factor in coverage improvements under new special teams coach Ray Rychleski. McAfee’s also got a net punting average of 38.0 yards, less than a yard off former Colts' veteran Hunter Smith’s number from last season.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Monroe
Monroe

Long-term solutions: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton were the top two picks and have played the bulk of the season at left and right tackle, respectively. They have not been consistent, but the team loves their skill sets and upside. And early work means they’ll get to the levels the team projected when spending such high picks on them sooner rather than later.

Eighth-rounders: First-year general manager Gene Smith needed additions beyond his draft class and found a couple: Cornerback William Middleton out of Furman and linebacker Russell Allen from San Diego State are undrafted free agents who made the team and have been contributors. In the nationally televised Week 15 Thursday night loss to the Colts, Allen led the team with 12 tackles. Smith is down a second and seventh rounder in 2010 because of trades, and he hopes to hit on some undrafteds again, and annually.

Three is key: Smith did great work in the third round, landing two small school players who’ve established themselves as productive starters with upside. Cornerback Derek Cox from William & Mary has not been intimidated by anything or anyone. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton from Temple has been a stout and reliable run stopper.

Tennessee Titans
Monroe
Britt

Biggest breakthrough: Since 1998, the Titans have spent draft picks in the top three rounds on Kevin Dyson, Tyrone Calico, Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Paul Williams. Dyson was involved in two of the franchise’s biggest plays in 1999 and did OK otherwise, but none of them solved the team's long-standing woes at receiver. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a great combination of size, power and speed who goes and gets the ball. Britt seems like he can be a consistently productive weapon.

Disappearing act: The Titans gave away a second-rounder to draft tight end Jared Cook in the third, and in camp he seemed like a great addition. Then he suffered an ankle injury, faded and never really re-emerged. Long-term he’s still very compelling. But the Titans sure could have used a jolt from him during their 0-6 start.

An heir: Gerald McRath seems comfortable and been effective as an outside linebacker when needed. He will start the rest of the way and, after bulking up in the offseason, stands to inherit the spot of either David Thornton (breaking down) or Keith Bulluck (free agent who tore an ACL in Week 15) next year. If both veterans are gone (a likely scenario), the second replacement needs to be a free agent or a draft pick.

Texans should hand it to Foster

December, 17, 2009
12/17/09
2:53
PM ET
The Texans haven’t done well to run the ball to get the lead. In a big win over Seattle, they showed they can’t run it well while trying to hold a lead either.

Up 24-7 after a first half with 364 yards (just 28 of which came on the ground), the Texans managed just 86 yards (57 on the ground) after intermission.

“We got a lead there, and once we got in the fourth quarter we’re trying to work the clock a little bit, and if we can get a couple of first downs running the football, keeping the clock going, we can keep our defense off the field and eat some clock up,” quarterback Matt Schaub told the Houston press. “That was the situation where we have to rise to the challenge and get those first downs and we weren’t able to do that for a few of those series.”

Gary Kubiak hasn’t yet said what he plans to do at running back. But last week before the game, he said he intended to get undrafted rookie Arian Foster five touches while looking for him to use those to earn five more. Foster wound up with a team-high 13 carries but only 34 yards.

Putting together two good halves has been an issue for the Texans on multiple occasions.

“I think one of the problems we had offensively is being able to control the game running the football,” Kubiak said. “So you’re sitting there with a big lead and for us to line up and pound the football team right now, I wish I could tell you that we’re confident in doing that but we’re struggling so it makes it hard for us to control the football game from that standpoint.

“We’re not going to quit attempting to do that, and at least last week with the position we were in, we were able to get Arian a bunch of carries and continue to try to get better at running the football. But we’re going to try to stay balanced even though it’s been very difficult because we’ve been throwing the ball so well. But it’s important to our team that we try to stay somewhat balanced.”

Sunday against the Rams, I won’t be surprised to see a game that looks similar to Seahawks-Texans.

I’d like to see Kubiak rely on Foster more when the Texans try to run. They know what they have in their other healthy backs -- Ryan Moats and Chris Brown -- and should see if they think Foster can be a legitimate third back or more next season.

Johnson laments Houston run game

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
4:12
PM ET
The Texans’ inability to run the ball has been an issue all season and Andre Johnson told KILT in Houston he thinks that has been the largest hurdle for the year’s team.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that is affecting us that we’re not running the ball like we did last year. I think that’s at times when were struggling, a lot of times we have to be one dimensional.”

The one dimensional Texans lost starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel along the way and haven’t gotten better in their second year under Alex Gibbs zone blocking scheme. A large part of that has been that Steve Slaton and Chris Brown haven’t performed up to expectations.

No matter the labor landscape, it’s hard to imagine running back won’t be a primary issue in free agency and/or the draft.

Here’s a link to Johnson’s whole interview.

How I See It: AFC South Stock Watch

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
10:59
AM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

1) Nate Washington, Titans WR: It was the injured Justin Gage, not Washington, who was the Titan in the bottom 10 of the league in catch percentage (44.9) heading into the weekend. But Washington’s hands-to-helmet reaction showed he knew full well how much of a killer his dropped 65-yard touchdown pass from Young was in Indianapolis.

Washington was targeted a team-high 10 times, but had only four catches for 44 yards. He was signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh to be the team’s deep threat, and while he leads the team with five touchdown receptions, his average is just 10.9 yards.

2) Gary Kubiak, Texans coach: On Nov. 1 after a win at Buffalo, his team was 5-3. It has flat-lined since, dropping four in a row, all in the division. His job security is the chief topic of conversation in Houston.

And the halfback option pass called for Chris Brown at a crucial spot late in the loss in Jacksonville was a desperate attempt by a team with plenty of firepower when the quarterback has the ball in his hands.

3) Titans’ fourth-down and short-yardage offense: Young threw fourth-down incompletions aimed for Kenny Britt (an ill-advised fade from the 2) and Lavelle Hawkins in the red zone in the second half against the Colts.

The throw for Britt concluded a disastrous stretch that started as a first-and-goal from the 1 with a chance to pull within 24-17. Young fumbled a snap on a sneak but recovered, saw LenDale White’s run for no gain turn into a 10-yard loss thanks to a hold by guard Eugene Amano and got only two yards on a pass to Bo Scaife before the failed fade.

Rising

[+] EnlargePierre Garcon
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPierre Garcon had a career day against the Titans.
1) Pierre Garcon, Colts WR: As the Titans worked hard, and effectively, to limit Reggie Wayne, it was Garcon who took advantage of a matchup with Nick Harper. Garcon had 99 yards receiving in the first quarter.

He finished with six catches for a game- and career-high 136 yards. That was half of the Colts' receiving yardage in the win over the Titans.

2) Adam Podlesh, Jaguars P: He dropped two of three punts inside the Texans’ 20 yard line, averaging a 45-yard net on three punts and playing a big part in a very good field position day for the Jaguars.

His coverage team chipped in too, limiting Houston’s Glenn Martinez to 13 return yards on three chances.

3) Colts' run defense: They gave up 113 yards to Chris Johnson, so what is it doing here? Well, Johnson entered the game averaging 6.4 yards a carry and got only 4.2 a carry in this game.

And he had one run of at least 30 yards in all but two games. The Colts, who didn’t let him break off anything longer than eight yards on Oct. 11, kept him at 11 yards or fewer on every carry this time around with linebacker Clint Session leading the charge.

What I think they're thinking

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
3:22
PM ET
What I think they are thinking in the headquarters of the four AFC South teams Monday afternoon.

Houston Texans

And so ends our season. What a disappointment. Lots of people will be looking to distribute blame. Gary Kubiak and his staff deserve a share. The “Culture of Close” is an issue for us, one that could mean a new coach and a new staff. But player execution was bad. Chris Brown's allowed to decide it’s not a good idea to throw on the halfback option play. Why doesn’t he know it and have the instincts to abort the play? It was nice to see Matt Schaub tough it out, but it just didn’t translate to the kind of success we crave. We can win four now and finish 9-7 and it will look like an improvement, but we’re not better than we’ve been the last couple years and shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking it no matter what.

Indianapolis Colts

That was nice to not have to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter for a change. We played a more complete game, snuffing out a hot team. It’s the sort of effort we hope to put forth in the playoffs. Here’s hoping Robert Mathis is OK, that’s a guy we can’t afford to lose for any important games. Having Kelvin Hayden back was nice, and our nickel package is much improved with him back in the lineup. The 21-game winning streak is nice, but like Jeff Saturday said Sunday, the playoff loss in the middle of it kind of ruins it. Still, a win Sunday against Denver gives us the all-time record for most consecutive regular season wins, and any time we can get ahead of the Patriots, we will take it.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Looming games against Indianapolis and at New England make everyone think we’ll come back to the pack, but they’re making a mistake by writing us off. While all these AFC wild-card contenders are flailing, we’ve managed to maintain a solid position. Even if Baltimore wins tonight, we are in control of the sixth spot in the AFC. Let’s be honest. Nobody believed we’d be here entering the last quarter of our season. It feels pretty good. But we know it can disappear quickly and that inconsistency has been our big issue all year long. Miami’s coming to town and the Dolphins are 6-6 and still in the hunt. We’re 5-1 at home and just played in front of the smallest crowd in our history. Wouldn’t it be nice if people came out to see this one?

Tennessee Titans

We did well to minimize mistakes during our five-game winning streak, but that went out the Lucas Oil Stadium window on Sunday. We gave the ball away twice. We failed on fourth down three times. We produced 17 points in five red zone chances when 35 points were available. We handed the Colts 15 yards with a personal foul penalty to enable a ridiculous 20-second field goal drive at the end of the first half. We’re not in the Colts’ league right now. It’s really disappointing that when we were in great position for a great impact play Nate Washington booted a perfect bomb from Vince Young that would have given us a 65-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead in the first quarter. What if we got that? What if we didn’t have such a long what-if list from this season?
Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak’s pink slip should come as a result of “over and over, through his nearly four years as their head coach, the Texans have made game-losing mistakes and failed to make game-winning plays,” says Jerome Solomon.

Matt Schaub showed toughness in returning to action after a shoulder injury, says John McClain.

Jacoby Jones will be fined for being late and then being told not to make the trip to Jacksonville, say Dale Robertson and McClain.

Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars ate up the clock when they needed to, says McClain.

A gadget play featuring Chris Brown short-circuited at a key moment, says Dale Robertson. What a horrific call.

McClain’s report card.

The Texans are playing out the string again, says Richard Justice.

No miracles for these Texans, writes Alan Burge.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts tied the record for consecutive regular-season wins with their 21st, says Mike Chappell.

Indy made some big stops at the goal line, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Joseph Addai made big plays and scored twice, says Curt Cavin.

Pierre Garcon’s become an alternate go-to guy, says Chappell and Wilson.

Bob Kravitz’ report card.

Whether they win the Super Bowl or not, what the Colts are doing is extraordinary, says John Oehser.

“The Colts are a more mature, more complete, more talented team than the Titans,” says 18to88.com.

A fast start was key for the Colts, says Mark Maske.

The Colts won’t be looking ahead, says Greg Doyel.

The Colts win like clockwork, says Kevin Baxter.

A look at fourth-down defense from Larry Hawley.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defense and no names keyed a big win for Jacksonville, writes Michael C. Wright.

Killing the clock was crucial for Jones-Drew, says Wright.

The NFL can’t ignore the Jaguars any longer, says Gene Frenette.

Nate Hughes and Zach Miller chipped in with big plays, says Vito Stellino.

Quentin Groves learned something in film study that helped create the play that knocked Matt Schaub out of the game, says Stellino.

The Texans chose the wrong option, says Jeff Elliott.

The report card from Frenette.

Fate is favoring the Jaguars, says Vic Ketchman.

Unknowns made plays for the Jaguars, says Cole Pepper.

Tennessee Titans

So much for that improbable 10-game winning streak to close out the season, says Jim Wyatt.

Vince Young wasn’t able to keep the streak alive, says Gary Estwick.

Four observations from David Climer.

He topped 100, but the Colts still contained Chris Johnson, say Wyatt and Climer.

Wyatt’s report card.

An early field goal was the wrong call, says Climer.

Peyton Manning is still in a different league, says Joe Biddle.

Nate Washington’s drop was a killer, writes Wyatt.

Tony Brown’s personal-foul penalty hurt, says Terry McCormick.

A look at the long-shot playoff chances from Music City Miracles.

Wrap-up: Jaguars 23, Texans 18

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
5:40
PM ET
Jacksonville saw its star back stuffed on a fourth-and-goal, gave up a safety and muffed a punt.

But against Houston the resilient Jaguars overcame their mistakes, took advantage of three interceptions, got big plays from unlikely contributors Nate Hughes and Zach Miller, beat the Texans 23-18 and expanded their current hold on an AFC wild-card spot.

While Jacksonville upped its mark to 7-5, Houston fell to 5-7 with a fourth consecutive loss, all in the AFC South. The Texans are tied with the Titans in the division's basement.

One of the Texans’ last ditch efforts came on a fourth-quarter trick play a heady player would have quickly aborted. But instead, Chris Brown forced a throw from the Jacksonville 5-yard line as he was hit and Gerald Alexander picked it off, ending a possession that needed to produce at least a field goal.

The Texans aren’t lacking for symbols of their failures, but there was another one.

Meanwhile the Jaguars completed a sweep of their division rivals and moved to 5-1 at home. They were opportunistic and tough.

Their biggest question in a surprising season has been consistency. They’ll have a chance to show some when they host the Dolphins next week with a chance to move three games over .500 for the first time this season.

Houston is finished with division games (1-5) and all but eliminated from the playoff picture. They need to win three of their final four to get to that familiar 8-8, or to run the table to top it for the first time.

Mailbag: Darts and laurels

December, 5, 2009
12/05/09
11:49
AM ET
Greg Francati from parts unknown writes: With six wins and a meaningful game in December, is this season already a success for the Jaguars?

Paul Kuharsky: I think so. A terrible finish could change that. But if they play as they have, even with the inconsistency, it looks as if they will finish well beyond expectations. I think they’ve squeezed more out of a deficient roster than could have been reasonably expected. They have a lot of reasons to feel good about their direction, but a lot of work to do.


Chris Mohammadi in Indy writes: Paul, I’m getting upset of the continuing talk of the Colts secondary. Every time they are mentioned it is said that three-fourths of our starting secondary is out/injured. I would like to argue (or just vent) that Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, Antoine Bethea, and Melvin Bullitt are the starting secondary. They have been getting it done all year. Bob Sanders has done nothing for this team all year. Marlin Jackson didn't start a single game (played nickel). Kelvin Hayden has appeared in only four and has exited early in a couple of those. The guys playing are our starting secondary and think it's time they were allowed out of the shadow of players we have barely seen this year. Thanks for the release Paul. Paul Kuharsky: I know how healthy venting can be, so I hope that helped.

I see your point and almost agree. I think the “loss” of Sanders has been overblown and Bullitt’s a largely unknown commodity for most people but an excellent player. I’d agree about rating Bullitt and Powers as starters. I think Lacey’s done well, but think they’ll be in better shape with Hayden back as least as the nickel or maybe eventually ahead of Lacey. That would bump Jennings back to dime.

And you have to be talking about five defensive backs, not four, because nickel is so important.


Matt in Dallas, TX: Fine, fine, fine, I'll be your Texans respondent. Texans thoughts/questions for you to blog: percent chance you think Dunta Robinson collects a Houston paycheck next season. What running backs do you think Houston might/should target for the draft? Chris Brown's just not cutting it and I don't know what to do with Steve Slaton. Bernard Pollard's been great in the secondary. Can you talk about what's going on at the other safety spot -- besides, ya know, musical chairs? Thanks for all you do. I generally don't like much about ESPN, but I think you do a fantastic job. Paul Kuharsky: Thanks for the compliments and stepping up with some questions.

I’ll go only 20 percent on Robinson being back, though that’s my gut not from anything I’ve been told. It just seems to me he’s not lived up to the financial demands this year. He hasn’t been an elite corner, has he?

I don’t know about college backs. I wonder what it would be like if they had a backfield of LenDale White and Slaton splitting duties. I also wonder about taking Antoine Bethea away as a free agent and pairing him with Pollard.

Barring big free agent moves, I think the Texans should focus on running back, cornerback and free safety in the draft and show a willingness to move on at those two spots in the secondary.


Will from Franklin, TN writes: Do the Titans have a chance at making the playoffs if they beat the Indianapolis Colts? Paul Kuharsky: Sure they do. More certain, they don’t have a chance if they don’t beat the Colts.


Chris Kirk in Indianapolis, IN writes: Could you look into how many touchbacks on kickoffs the Colts have been getting since inserting Pat McAfee as a kickoff specialist? It seems like he's really pounding the ball. I almost expect a touchback every time. Do you think this drop in the number of returns against our special teams and improved field position have played into our resurgence on kickoff coverage (relatively speaking) and stiffened defense, if at all?

Paul Kuharsky: McAfee has 14 touchbacks already. Adam Vinatieri had eight all of last season. It’s definitely a factor in improved coverage.


Cliff Butner from parts unknown writes: Well, you seem to have taken your time, listened to your beloved talking heads, and decided it might be possible that VY is a good quarterback. Way to go, Chief! You know, you could step out on a limb once in your life, and pick the improbable to happen, and not wait for others. Be a leader for once in your life. You can do it! You're smarter than us hicks from TN, heck, you're Columbia educated. Now, go show us some leadership. Paul Kuharsky: I’ll take that under advisement, Cliff.


Peter in Nashville writes: Hey Paul, two questions regarding your "Primary Complaint." To be honest, neither are football related. Paul, I couldn't help but notice that the main framed poster behind you has been different every time. What is up with that? Second, I noticed a reflection in the aforementioned frame. What were you watching on TV? Paul Kuharsky: In my office, I’ve got a collection of framed Hatch Show Prints from concerts at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Yes, I’ve been switching them up. Pete Yorn is usually in that spot and will return, but in recent weeks I’ve put Bruce Springsteen there (when he played Nashville), Kings of Leon and this week it was Mark Knopfler. Just messing around.

The TV should be off during video production. Pretty sure my background noise, muted for that, was SportsNation.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider