AFC South: Colt McCoy

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blaine Gabbert never became the franchise quarterback former Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Gene Smith envisioned when he traded two picks to get him in the first round of the 2011 draft. The Jaguars finally gave up on Gabbert last Tuesday when current GM David Caldwell traded Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and a possible conditional pick in 2015. Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the trade:

DiRocco: Blaine Gabbert clearly wasn't in the Jaguars' plans any longer and I, like most people, expected the team to release him at some point -- though I thought he'd at least go to training camp. But GM David Caldwell was somehow able to work out a trade with 49ers GM Trent Baalke to send Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick and a conditional pick in 2015.

What does Baalke like about Gabbert and why did he swing that trade?

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesUnder the guidance of coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are hoping that Blaine Gabbert can finally flourish.
Williamson: The 49ers had 12 draft picks and they have a stacked roster, thus, low-round draft picks don’t mean much to them. Baalke and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh (who loves taking fliers in young quarterbacks) were both at Gabbert’s pro day three years ago and they had him visit prior to the draft. The 49ers have a need for a backup and always kept Gabbert in mind. I know it may have come as a surprise to folks in Jacksonville that the Jaguars got anything more than a loaf of San Francisco sourdough bread from the 49ers, but they actually do see value in Gabbert.

Mike, what do you think the 49ers are actually getting in Gabbert?

DiRocco: They're getting exactly what you want physically in a quarterback: a big (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), athletic, strong-armed player. That has never been his issue. It's what happens mentally that has held him back. He's somewhat skittish in the pocket and he makes too many questionable decisions on where to throw the ball. It's disconcerting because he's a pretty good practice player, but it doesn't transfer to game day.

There seems to be the thought that if anyone can fix him, it's Jim Harbaugh. But how much time can he devote to Gabbert while still working with Colin Kaepernick?

Williamson: You make a good point. Kaepernick is still not a finished product. But Harbaugh loves tinkering with quarterbacks. Gabbert’s time will be in the offseason, training camp and in the preseason. He needs to take advantage of working with the Quarterback Whisperer. Colt McCoy said last year he learned more about quarterbacking in his one season in San Francisco than in his entire playing career. So this is an opportunity for Gabbert; Harbaugh and his staff are top notch.

Mike, do you think Gabbert can put the misery of the past three years behind him and take advantage of this opportunity?

DiRocco: I think he will definitely benefit from the fresh start, but I don't know if he can overcome his mental issues. I don't buy the argument that he panics and is afraid to get hit. I think he was hurt by being forced to play before he was ready, plus he didn't exactly have a lot of weapons in the passing game. Not many quarterbacks are going to flourish under those conditions. If he's willing to start over from ground zero and approaches this with an open mind, I think he can make strides. He's still only 24 years old.

Bill, it may be too early to tell, but do you think the 49ers view Gabbert as a potential long-term backup or is this just them kicking the tires to see if he's a viable option?

Williamson: I think it’s a total kick-the-tires expedition. Again, it’s a low risk at a low cost. He’ll be the backup this year and they will see what he can do. If he’s terrible, they will move on. If they fix him, perhaps they will try to flip him and make a nice draft-pick profit. Basically, this is a guy who previously intrigued them and they are confident they can make him better. If it doesn’t work, well, at least Baalke and Harbaugh will know they tried.
The sophomore slump concept baffles me.

Sure, we see it at times. But it’s as if just because there is a sing-songy and alliterative name for a second-year dip, it’s a fact that any good rookie endures a sophomore slump.

I just had a pretty good view of J.J. Watt’s second year. It was no slump.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Michael ConroyColts quarterback Andrew Luck seems an unlikely candidate for a sophomore slump.
Coaches regularly say the biggest jump for players is between Year 1 and Year 2.

When it comes to Andrew Luck, I’m not predicting anything close to a sophomore slump.

Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information was kind enough to sort though numbers on quarterbacks over the past 10 years who played substantially in their first and second years.

There are 15 quarterback in the past 10 seasons who have qualified for the passer rating title in each of their first two seasons. That requires 14 pass attempts per game.

Here’s the list of those 15:

Cam Newton, CAR
Sam Bradford, STL
Matt Ryan, ATL
Andy Dalton, CIN
Joe Flacco, BAL
Byron Leftwich, JAC
Ben Roethlisberger, PIT
Mark Sanchez, NYJ
Blaine Gabbert, JAC
Vince Young, TEN
Josh Freeman, TB
Christian Ponder, MIN
Trent Edwards, BUF
Colt McCoy, CLE
Kyle Boller, BAL

Nuggets from Singer on those 15 regarding the idea of a sophomore slump:

  • Ten of them increased their completion percentage in their second year. Young had the biggest increase (51.5 to 62.3) while Bradford had the biggest drop (60.0 to 53.5).
  • Nine of the 15 increased or saw their yards per attempt remain consistent. Edwards had the biggest increase (6.1 to 7.2) while Ryan had the biggest drop (7.9 to 6.5).
  • Thirteen of the 15 saw their touchdown-to-interception ratio increase. Freeman had by far the biggest increase (.56 to 4.2, going from 10 TDs and 18 INTs to 25 TDs and six INTs) while Young had the biggest drop (.92 to .53, 12 TDs and 13 INTs to nine TDs and 17 INTs).
  • Thirteen of the 15 saw their NFL passer rating remain steady or improve. Freeman had the biggest increase (59.8 to 95.9) while Matt Ryan had the biggest drop (87.7 to 80.9).
  • There are 10 quarterbacks in the QBR era (since 2008) who have qualified for the passer rating title in each of their first two seasons. Seven of those QBs saw their QBR remain steady or increase. Freeman had the biggest increase (25.9 to 64.6) while Ryan had the biggest drop (74.1 to 56.6).

Improvement or decline in Year 2 hardly establishes a permanent arrow -- Freeman is much less of a sure thing now than he seemed after his second season; Ryan has become a much more known and desirable commodity since his second season.

But let’s get past this default setting that a rookie quarterback who has a decent, good or very good first year is automatically going to suffer a second-year dip.

I’d bet on Luck being far better in completion percentage (where he was at 54.1 percent in 2012 and is in a system featuring shorter passing now). I also expect he will throw fewer than 18 interceptions, throw more than 23 touchdowns, absorb fewer than 41 sacks and post a rating higher than 76.5.

The trade off for improvements in those areas is likely to come in air yards. Luck’s 10.1 air yards per pass last season, per NFL Stats & Information, was the highest number in the NFL.
Andrew LuckAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherAndrew Luck developed as a high school quarterback playing seven-on-seven ball in Texas.

It amounted to fast-break basketball on grass: a summer tournament seven-on-seven football game.

Stratford High School coach Eliot Allen watched it unfold from his usual spot in the back of an end zone, not interacting with the kids representing his school against Dez Bryant and Lufkin High.

Over two 20-minute halves with a running clock, at a furious pace at which he had to throw the ball within four seconds of the snap against coverages that had no concern for the run, Andrew Luck didn’t throw an incomplete pass.

“He’s accuracy was unbelievable,” Allen said. “That one game he didn’t have an incomplete pass. I’ve never see it before or since. He throws such a catchable ball.”

When the Indianapolis Colts inevitably make Luck the first pick in the draft on April 26, the Stanford quarterback will enter the league rated by many scouts and evaluators as the most pro-ready quarterback since John Elway.

While Luck’s refined his remarkable touch as the leader of the Cardinal, he honed it early on in Texas seven-on-seven summer ball. He participated even as a rising ninth-grader, and Allen says Luck easily played 75 such games before moving onto college, contests that were crucial to the early development of good habits and exquisite ball placement.

As coach of Cypress Falls High, David Raffield regularly saw Luck play during the summer, then coached against Stratford in regular season and playoff football during Luck’s junior and senior years.

“Watching Andrew grow and develop into a quarterback was nothing short of amazing,” said Raffield, who now coaches A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. “The seven-on-seven allowed him to really develop his game. When you are out there as a quarterback running the offense, it’s not plays being called by a coach. You’re the guy doing it. You’re becoming your own offensive coordinator. …

“His junior and senior year he had an amazing ability to place the football. The accuracy was phenomenal. He understood pass coverages. It gave him such advantages. I didn’t know he’s wind up being an NFL first-round draft pick, but I knew he was special.”

The summer before Luck’s senior year in 2007, his team finished second in Texas and played in a national tournament in Los Angeles. There, football staffs of high schools from California and Florida coached their players, Allen recalled.

It doesn’t work that way in Texas, where a state organization runs the leagues and tournaments. A high school’s coaches might help arrange leagues, tournaments and officials, but players work under the watch of others. Stratford uses former players from its team as summer ball coaches.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak was a St. Pius X High School (Houston) and Texas A&M quarterback well before seven-on-seven summers started. He joked if he had a chance to play that much, people would have discovered he wasn’t any good.

Klein Kubiak, a former Strake Jesuit High School receiver who graduated in 2009 and now plays at Rice, played in the same district and overlapped with Luck. So as Gary Kubiak followed his son, he saw Luck play in tournaments. He’s also seen just how much the competition and setting have done for Texas signal-callers.

“He was very impressive,” Gary Kubiak said. “I think there is a lot of growth going on in those leagues right now. On a Saturday afternoon, those kids might play six of those games.

“I just think you can’t get enough of those repetitions. It’s almost like having two spring balls. It’s almost gotten a little bit year-round, kind of like baseball.”

Such summer-league play takes place in a lot of states now. But Texas was a pioneer.

So it’s no coincidence that the three top quarterbacks in this draft -- Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill -- are all from Texas.

“Think about these names,” said Tennessee Titans quarterback coach Dowell Loggains, who started at quarterback for Cooper High School in Abilene, Texas, in 1997 and 1998 in both summer seven-on-seven and regular fall football. “Ryan Mallett, Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy, Christian Ponder, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Kevin Kolb, Robert Griffin, Case Keenum.

[+] EnlargeDowell Loggains
Danny Murphy/Icon SMITitans QB coach Dowell Loggains attributes the recent influx of quarterbacks from Texas into the NFL to all the extra reps they get.
“I mean it’s huge. That’s why all these Texas high school quarterbacks are coming out and doing really well. They are so much further along than the rest of the states, plus they get 15 dates for spring practice just like a college. They are getting so many more reps than the rest of the country.”

Other states may be taking note and trying to copy, Loggains said. But it’ll be tough for many to match or top Texas because of the facilities and money high school football has in the Lone Star State.

Added ESPN analyst Jon Gruden when asked about Texas’ production of quarterbacks: “Obviously if you go to Texas, you can probably find passing tournaments going on right now, and if they're not going on right now, they'll be going on later this afternoon and for sure tomorrow and the next day. They throw the ball and have organized passing camps more than any place I've ever been.”

Allen said seven-on-seven forces quarterbacks to figure out ways to beat man-to-man coverage with two-deep safeties and that doing so at an early stage of their football careers is invaluable. Against such a look from the secondary in an actual high school game, a quarterback would hand off most of the time.

“You don’t win those games playing defense,” Allen said. “It reveals a quarterback’s accuracy and I don’t think you can simulate stiff coverage in a better way. Andrew was very good at it. He can throw the deep ball. A lot of people give him a hard time about not being able to throw the deep ball. He was great at it. But his deal is, he just wants to get first downs.”

As a high-schooler, Loggains said he thought the summer opportunity was “awesome.”

And it made it a heck of a lot easier to get time and work with receivers, who might not show up for an informal session on a Tuesday night but wouldn’t miss a chance to play in a game with a score and a title on the line.

The proliferation of seven-on-seven play actually influenced the game at all levels.

Coaches found they had quarterbacks equipped to run spread offenses in high school and moved away from traditional run-heavy, defense-centric schemes. They then fed those quarterbacks to colleges, where the spread continued to spread.

And when those quarterbacks landed in the NFL, teams had no choice but to employ some spread concepts, willingly or unwillingly, to try to take advantage of their quarterbacks’ strengths.

“When we had Vince Young, we had to mix in a lot of that with [offensive coordinators] Norm Chow and Mike Heimerdinger,” Loggains said.

Rather than an NFL idea trickling down, a byproduct of a high school idea trickled up.

And one scout I spoke with said he sees no end to it.

“That’s the new craze, the seven-on-seven stuff,” he said. “Texas has been doing it longer and it’s the most organized state. How many good quarterbacks have come out of Texas the last 10 years? A ton. The more reps you get at anything, the better you’ll be at it.

“It’s why I stink so bad at golf.”

Wrap-up: Browns 14, Jaguars 10

November, 20, 2011

Thoughts on the Jaguars’ 14-10 loss to the Browns in Cleveland:

What it means: The Jaguars fell to 3-7, and although they talked during the week of getting back into the AFC South race, the loss pretty much killed the chances of that. Decision-making at the end, when they were in position to win, was poor. Read on.

What I didn’t like: The Jaguars had two plays from the Cleveland 1-yard line to score a touchdown and win the game at the end but couldn’t do it. With eight seconds left, the prudent play call was to throw first. Jacksonville did that, knowing it would either get the touchdown or stop the clock with an incompletion. Blaine Gabbert threw incomplete to Jason Hill in the back left corner of the end zone. With three seconds left, the Jaguars have to be able to make room for their best player, Maurice Jones-Drew, to run it in. But they called for Gabbert to throw, and from the shotgun he pump-faked, then threw well behind Mike Thomas.

What I didn’t like, II: Gabbert had more chances, which I like, but 21-of-41 for 210 yards with no touchdowns hardly qualified as the breakout game we’ve been looking for -- that’s 4.6 yards per pass play. And the Browns dropped a couple of balls that should have been picks.

Bad call: Officials botched a second-quarter call that helped position the Browns for a touchdown. On a second-and-goal from the Jaguars' 7-yard line, Colt McCoy threw into the end zone, and safety Dawan Landry was called for pass interference. But replays clearly showed the throw was tipped at the line, which would mean there couldn’t be pass interference. Jack Del Rio challenged it, but referee Terry McAulay upheld the initial ruling, giving Cleveland a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

What’s next: The Jaguars host the AFC South-leading Houston Texans, who are coming off a bye week and will start Matt Leinart at quarterback with Matt Schaub injured.

Final Word: AFC South

November, 18, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Good matchup: Cleveland has an anemic offense and an unbalanced defense. On paper, the Jaguars’ burgeoning defense should be able to have a good day against quarterback Colt McCoy. The Jaguars’ offense should be able to really ride Maurice Jones-Drew against the 30th-ranked run defense, which allows 142.8 yards on ground per game. The Browns are No. 1 in pass defense, in part because of a Joe Haden-led secondary, in part because when opponents run that well against them, they don’t need to throw it as much. Doesn’t seem like a potential breakout day for Jags QB Blaine Gabbert.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesChris Johnson was effective last week with the Titans protecting a big lead. Can he keep it up against the Falcons?
Running without a lead: Chris Johnson had a breakout game last week in Carolina. But the Titans were very quickly in position where they could force-feed him. A quick 14-0 put the team into position where it was easy to hand the ball off and work the same run plays over and over. And that was healthy for the Titans. But in a game like Sunday’s at Atlanta, the question is whether the Titans can run Johnson effectively from the start in a game where the Titans probably don’t jump out to a big, early lead.

Few fireworks: The Jaguars and the Browns have each scored more than 17 points only once this season. Jacksonville averages 12.8 points (31st in the NFL) and Cleveland averages 14.6 (28th). Want more? These are the two worst teams in the league in yards per play, with the Jaguars averaging 4.0 and the Browns 4.4. But beware. Often when we pile up a list of stats indicating there won’t be much offense or many points, we get a 40-38 game. Also note the Jaguars have won only once on the road this season.

Safe and sound: The Titans have gotten just what they envisioned from QB Matt Hasselbeck when they signed him. They thought with good protection he’d return to his best form, and he has. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hasselbeck has been sacked, hit while throwing or under duress on the lowest percentage of drop-backs this season -- 15.9. When he’s not under duress, he’s completed 65.2 percent of his passes. (Sometimes he rushes things; something to keep an eye out for.) Atlanta has 15 sacks, with right end John Abraham and tackle Corey Peters having three apiece.

Bye week thoughts: I’m not sure there is much the Colts can be thinking or doing during their weekend off that will do much to change the course of their miserable season and a potential 0-16 record. Houston, meanwhile, should allow itself some degree of satisfaction over its 7-3 record and No. 1 defensive ranking. When the Texans return to action, they’ll need to make things as easy as possible for Matt Leinart as he steps in at quarterback to replace the injured Matt Schaub. The Jaguars' defense will be a stiff challenge for Leinart, but Houston’s rushing attack and D should give it a good chance at win No. 8 on Nov. 27 in Jacksonville.

Final Word: AFC South

November, 4, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

Over in the first? The Texans have scored 57 points in the first quarter, third most in the league. The Browns have scored three, the fewest in the league. If the patterns hold, could we have a snoozer by the time the teams switch ends? ESPN Stats & Information says no quarterback has been less threatening downfield this season than Cleveland’s Colt McCoy. He has three 30-yard pass plays in 163 completions. That’s 1.8 percent, the lowest percentage of 30-yard plays of anyone this season. I don’t expect the Texans to have receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring), but Houston should still be more threatening downfield than the Browns.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Joshua Weisberg/Icon SMIIn Julio Jones' last full game, he caught 11 passes for 127 yards.
Bad timing: The Colts seem to be catching the Falcons at the wrong time. If Julio Jones returns from a hamstring injury that cost him the last two games, he will have wide eyes looking at the Indianapolis secondary. In his last full game, Jones was targeted 15 times, the fourth most for any player this season. He wound up with a franchise-rookie record 11 catches for 127 yards. On defense, the Falcons have broken out of a sack slump with eight in their last three games, not good news for Curtis Painter, though he should be behind a better line as some guys are healing up.

Watch the deep stuff: Cincinnati rookie receiver A.J. Green is giving the Bengals something the Titans lack without the injured Kenny Britt -- a serious deep threat. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Green has six receptions on throws more than 20 air yards downfield this season, tied for fourth most in the NFL. Only four rookies have had more than six such receptions since the start of 2008. The Titans have covered reasonably well this season. Odds are we’ll see both Cortland Finnegan and Alterraun Verner working against Green. They’ll need a pass rush to help make it work.

Never ahead: The Colts have run 77 plays when leading this season, the fourth fewest in the NFL behind the Broncos, Seahawks and Rams. Just 16.6 percent of the Colts’ offensive plays have come when leading this season compared to 41.9 percent the three seasons before with Peyton Manning. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have been quiet in recent weeks, and they obviously thrive when a quarterback has to throw. Indianapolis is best playing from ahead, and the Colts have rarely been in that situation this season.

Bengals in nickel: Cincinnati’s pass defense has been stronger when it has had at least five defensive backs on the field, allowing just one touchdown. The Titans are hardly a great three-wide team, considering their third receiver is Lavelle Hawkins. They would be wise to go with two tight ends more often and feature Jared Cook, a player who has been underused. The Bengals have not covered tight ends well this season. Why let Cincinnati get into its nickel package when Matt Hasselbeck has thrown five of six picks against defensive sets with at least one extra defensive back?
Matt HasselbeckJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck had problems connecting with his receivers and ended the day with a 72.0 rating.
PITTSBURGH -- The angry words built up in a somber locker room, and reserved players contemplating an awful loss started to spit them out.

The Tennessee Titans were “disgusted” over their 38-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. They were ticked off that they “got kicked around" and were recipients of “an old-fashioned butt whooping.”

“They kicked our butts and we kicked our own butts,” defensive end Dave Ball said, referring to a scene where Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up in a bathroom in the movie “Liar Liar." "It was a perfect s--- storm."

But Ball and others who so eloquently discussed the result were quick to sandwich it with resolve regarding the potential for it to be duplicated.

“You’re not going to see this Titans team again,” Ball said. “I guarantee that. You’re not going to see the same thing happen again.”

Tennessee is 3-2 heading into its bye, and with Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis all dropping games too, the Titans didn’t lose any ground in the AFC South standings.

“That’s good,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

That’s about all that’s good from the day.

A look at three elements of the disaster:

The start: Tennessee marched 69 yards on 13 plays on a game-opening drive but stalled badly in the red zone with two penalties, an incomplete pass and a sack.

Rob Bironas' 29-yard field goal felt like a win for the Steelers, and when Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to midfield, things really started to lean in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“After that we really stalled,” Hasselbeck said. “We didn’t look like we looked on the first drive.”

The Titans' next five series produced two first downs and 49 yards. It was 28-3 by the time they put together another effective drive.

The timing was off, with Hasselbeck frequently throwing behind guys -- some of it inaccuracy, some of it bad communication or lingering unfamiliarity. The team was in two-minute drive mode starting with its second drive of the second half.

“I just have more questions than answers right now,” Hasselbeck said.

Coach Mike Munchak didn't like the idea that a field goal instead of a touchdown was that big a letdown at the start.

"I hope we're not going to go into the tank because we got held to three points instead of seven," he said.

It wasn't the only reason but it helped.

Ben Roethlisberger: Cornerback Cortland Finnegan knew the Titans were thoroughly outplayed, but the corner who picked Roethlisberger's one really bad pass raised his eyebrows in surprise when he was told the Steelers' quarterback threw five touchdowns.

Coming into Pittsburgh, the Titans had faced Luke McCown, Joe Flacco, Kyle Orton and Colt McCoy. Hardly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks.

The Steelers smartly adjusted their offense for their quarterback, who has a sprained left foot. He didn’t hold the ball for a long time and scramble around like he typically does. He got rid of it pretty quickly while benefiting from some max protection that aided a beat-up line.

In such circumstances, the defense then needs to keep things in front of it, hit pass-catchers quickly and limit first downs.

The Titans didn’t.

“They used a different game plan than last week against the Texans,” end Jason Jones said. “They were going to max protect or they were going to get it out quick. We had our opportunities to get to him and didn’t. But it was dink and dunk and max protect.”

Rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had the Titans' lone sack.

Special teams: The Steelers crushed the Titans with that big kickoff return from Brown and a fake punt where Daniel Sepulveda threw a 33-yard pass to Ryan Mundy.

Even when the Titans did good things on special teams, they turned bad.

The Titans recovered a third-quarter onsides kick after cutting the lead to 28-10, but Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel got a piece of Hasselbeck’s throw on the very next play and LaMarr Woodley picked it off. When linebacker Tim Shaw blocked a Sepulveda punt in the fourth quarter, Finnegan returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. But an illegal block in the back call against Jamie Harper wiped away the score.

“It’s a three-phase game, and special teams we’ve got to pick it up,” said linebacker Gerald McRath. “We’ve definitely got to pull our weight. We let the team down.”

Moving forward ...

The Titans pulled off a 3-1 first-quarter record after dropping their opener with a lousy performance in Jacksonville. Hasselbeck said they hope to match it in the season's second quarter. They'll have to win three in a row at home after their bye to do so: against Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

That good start began to create some hype, and the Titans said they hadn’t bought in. But if any self-satisfaction had crept in anywhere, the Steelers snuffed it out.

“I just feel that you can feel people patting you on the back and that’s not what helps you win games,” Hasselbeck said. “I think typically what helps you in games is hard work and feeling like you’ve got something to prove and feeling like you’ve got to give everything you’ve got.

“I’m just slow to accept that stuff.”

After this dud, you can see why that’s the safe route.

Wrap-up: Titans 31, Browns 13

October, 2, 2011
Thoughts on the Titans 31-13 win over the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

What it means: The Titans share the lead in the AFC South with a 3-1 record after an impressive road win. They showed the loss of Kenny Britt won’t ground them as three different players caught touchdown passes and Chris Johnson ran for more than 100 yards for the first time this season.

What I liked: Matt Hasselbeck completed 10 passes, but three of them were for touchdowns. The Titans got a lot of yards after the catch and they jumped ahead 31-6 after safety Jordan Babineaux added a 97-yard interception return for a score. Johnson finally found something to build on. The Titans made Cleveland one-dimensional as Colt McCoy attempted 61 passes, absorbing four sacks.

Upside down: The Titans usually love to win time of possession. But losing time of possession big -- like 36:53 to 23:07 -- is just fine when you don’t hold the ball long because you’re making big plays in a hurry. Tennessee has touchdown drives of six, one and four plays.

Debut: Rookie quarterback Jake Locker got in late and handed off a bunch. He also threw his first regular season pass, an incompletion in Nate Washington’s direction.

What’s next: The Titans are on the road in Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the middle of their four consecutive games against the AFC South. Pittsburgh’s beaten Indianapolis and lost to Houston so far.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

The last time Duane Brown faced the Steelers and James Harrison, it was his first game as a pro and he got taken apart. Brown’s been very solid this season, and feels a lot more ready for the matchup this time around, says John McClain.

My take: Brown’s bigger, stronger, tougher and smarter. The Texans line can largely be overlooked, but that won’t stay the case if he and the rest of the group play the way they are capable of through the season.

Indianapolis Colts

Turnovers and big returns have left the Colts' defense in bad spots on the field far too often this season. And giving up 28 points a game is going to make it awfully difficult to break through, says Phil Richards.

My take: It’s easy to say, but the defense has been good enough to win when not faced with sudden-change situations. Still, like Pat Angerer said, they’ve got to put out the fire no matter when they are called on.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Since defensive coordinator Gregg Williams left the Jaguars for the Saints in 2009, he has faced nine rookie quarterbacks. They combined to throw two touchdown passes and 15 interceptions against Williams' defenses, says Vito Stellino.

My take: The Saints can be beat when blitzing, as they are not loaded in the defensive backfield. Blaine Gabbert needs to get the ball out quickly and accurately, and his targets need to get some yards after the catch.

Tennessee Titans

Are NFL teams better off inserting their young quarterbacks into the lineup as early as possible and letting them learn as they go? Or is it wiser to let them sit and soak behind a veteran for a year or two? John Glennon looks at Colt McCoy and Jake Locker as the Titans prepare for the Browns.

My take: It’s easy to sit the kid if you have a veteran playing well like the Titans do with Matt Hasselbeck. It’s easy to play the kid when you don’t have a sufficient alternative, like the Browns.

Wrap-up: Browns 27, Colts 19

September, 18, 2011
Thoughts on the Colts’ 27-19 loss to the Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: The Colts are 0-2 and struggling. While things were better with Kerry Collins than in the opener, he couldn’t get the Colts into the end zone until the very end when it was too late. He finished 19-of-38 for 191 yards with a touchdown, a pick, a lost fumble and a 62.5 passer rating.

Disappointing: The Colts took drives into the red zone early in the second quarter and early in the third quarter. In six plays in side the Browns' 20-yard line, they moved the ball a total of four yards before settling for field goals. Meanwhile Cleveland scored touchdowns on its first two forays into the red zone.

Better, but… The Colts ran for 109 yards and a 4.2 yard average and held the Browns to 106 yards and a 3.1 yard average. But Peyton Hillis ran for two scores, one through a weak-effort arm tackle by Melvin Bullitt, and that was a huge difference in the game.

Reason for concern: The Colts pass rush should be able to bother an inexperienced quarterback like Colt McCoy, but he hit on 22-of-32 throws for 211 yards and a TD while he was sacked just once and hit just four times. He produced a passer rating of 97.3.

What’s next: The Colts host the Steelers for Sunday Night Football, and a national TV audience will get to see what they look like without Peyton Manning.

Key matchups from Browns, Ravens angle

September, 16, 2011
New AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley did not have enough on his plate Thursday, his first day with So I maneuvered to steal some of his time to talk about two key matchups in games pitting our teams against his on Sunday. It produced this post.

Call it rookie hazing.

PK: For starters, I’m curious about the Browns' plan to slow down Robert Mathis, I know they’ve got some issues at right tackle.

JH: They haven’t even settled on one guy, they’re going to go with a rotation with Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins. For the chemistry and to get into a rhythm with the offensive line, that’s just not an ideal situation. So I think the best way for them to negate Mathis is through strategy. Colt McCoy is going to take a lot of three-step drops, get rid of the ball very quickly. Because if he holds the ball like he did last week against Cincinnati, he’s going to get hit.

They feel very confident in Joe Thomas on the left side with Dwight Freeney, but the big question is how they stop Mathis. I think they just can’t let Mathis get a shot on McCoy, I think they have to be smart. Because right now that’s the biggest matchup problem they have.

PK: And if the Browns can get ahead, like Houston did last weekend, the biggest way to make both those defensive ends non-factors is to run the ball. So I’m sure Cleveland is hoping for a big day from Peyton Hillis.

How about with the Ravens, I know they’ve got some questions on the secondary and their defense is keyed around their front. Kenny Britt has shown himself to be, perhaps, the Titans’ most dangerous guy. If he gets loose in that secondary and they can protect Matt Hasselbeck, what happens back there?

JH: That’s going to be a big question. The Ravens thought they had a deep secondary coming into the season. Then they lost first-round pick Jimmy Smith to a high ankle sprain, he’s going to be gone for a month. Then you have Chris Carr who hasn’t practiced this week because he aggravated a hamstring injury.

So you have Cary Williams, a former Titan, starting for the Ravens, and Lardarius Webb, who was very inconsistent last year but who’s coming off a good, strong game. I think they’re going to have to do this by committee because Kenny Britt is a talented receiver. I think they’re going to have to use a lot of Ed Reed shading his way.

I don’t think they can honestly go into this game thinking they can put one guy on him and really take Kenny Britt out of this game. Whatever side Kenny Britt goes to, I think that’s where Ed Reed follows.

PK: Britt and Hasselbeck still have some timing issues. That can be just the sort of thing Ed Reed finds an opportunity to pounce on.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 16, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackThe Jaguars limited Titans running back Chris Johnson to 24 yards rushing in Week 1.
A focus on Chris Johnson: The Titans are semi-desperate to get their star running back going. But Mike Munchak emphasized this week that they can’t force it. It’s hard to be patient waiting for the big play, but they can’t call 10 rush plays in a row for him. The Titans need to show some creativity on offense and maybe turn themselves inside-out with some passes to set up the run. Matt Hasselbeck said they need to be in third-and-manageable to get off to a better start and to get the sort of possession they need to find an offensive flow. One good omen for Johnson: ESPN Stats & Info says he’s been very effective against 3-4 defenses, averaging about 6 yards per carry running outside against them.

Can the Colts rush? The Browns can neutralize Indianapolis’ pass rush by jumping ahead and riding Peyton Hillis. But when Colt McCoy is looking to throw, the matchups on Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be compelling. Freeney is a speed guy, and if Joe Thomas has any weakness, it might come against a guy like that. (See Pete Prisco on the matchup here.) Tony Pashos is out, so Mathis will go against some sort of rotation of backups Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks. Mathis came out of the opener with a neck issue, but he should have a big advantage here.

Big plays in Jaguars-Jets: The Jaguars are not necessarily a big-play team in the passing game, and if they aren’t going to find big plays, they have to be sure not to give them up, either. Stats & Info says Plaxico Burress was the only Jets receiver to be targeted more than twice on throws of 15 yards or more in Week 1. Last season, the Jaguars allowed the most completions and yards per attempt on throws of at least 15 yards. The offensive line will have to sort through constant blitzes to allow Luke McCown to find people, and we could see Cecil Shorts get some big opportunities along with Mike Thomas.

Reggie Bush and the run: The Texans are 5-0 against the Dolphins, but the average margin of victory has been just three points. Houston might be more ready to face Miami than usual after spending a lot of camp time working against its own 3-4 defense. Reggie Bush was on the field more than any other starting running back in the league, and Miami will try to spread the Texans out and create space for Bush to make plays. A big, early lead was the Texans’ best run defense in the win against the Colts. But they were run on in the preseason, and we’ll see Sunday whether things have tightened up or whether there is still a run defense concern.

Replenished D-line: The Titans’ revamped defense was a disappointment in the Week 1 loss at Jacksonville. Why might it be better this week? Because two guys who didn’t play against the Jaguars -- Jason Jones and Derrick Morgan -- will be in the mix. They should be the team’s top defensive ends. Baltimore’s tackles, the resurrected Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, started strong against the Steelers. Can the Titans' young rushers find some cracks?
Andre Johnson/Matt SchaubBob Levey/Icon SMIAndre Johnson and Matt Schaub help lead a Texans team that has a clear path to the division title.
It’s a bit easy to say the AFC South should belong to the Houston Texans this season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sets up for success.

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

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

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

It sounds simple.

It just might be.
Rick Gosselin’s as good a draftnik as there is, so I read his 2010 redraft with considerable interest.

Beyond the three AFC South teams he has changing first-round selections (he’s got the Jaguars sticking with Tyson Alualu, who leads the connected story), Gosselin pulls four former or current AFC South players who were not originally first-round selections into his new first round.

So congratulations LeGarrette Blount (undrafted by the Titans, now in Tampa Bay), Pat Angerer (Colts’ second-rounder), Alterraun Verner (Titans’ fourth-rounder) and Marc Mariani (Titans’ seven-rounder).

You all fared much better in December than you did in April.

Gosselin gave the Titans Angerer at 16, the Texans Colt McCoy at 20 and the Colts Jared Veldheer at 31. The players those three teams picked -- Derrick Morgan, Kareem Jackson and Jerry Hughes -- are gone from the first round.

The piece also includes a bunch on the Jaguars and Titans as Gosselin covered their game Sunday, two seats over from yours truly.

AFC South Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Jaguars turned the ball over for a sixth time with 11:18 left in the fourth quarter and the defense was in a bad spot yet again.

But Jacksonville’s defense got off the field in four plays, holding up and allowing only a missed 51-yard field goal attempt by Phil Dawson.

After David Garrard's pass for Marcedes Lewis was intercepted by T.J. Ward and returned for 23 yards, Kirk Morrison made two stops of Peyton Hillis, the first for no gain, the second after two yards.

On third down, Colt McCoy threw incomplete for Brian Robiskie, and after Dawson’s miss, the Jaguars took over and marched 59 yards in 12 plays to a Garrard-to-Lewis 14-yard TD that knotted the game at 17-17.

That stop after the Jaguars’ final turnover was symbolic of a tremendous defensive effort from Jacksonville.

Maurice Jones-Drew’s fumble was returned by Abram Elam for an 18-yard touchdown.

But in the five other sudden change situations, the defense was remarkable. Here’s what the Browns managed after each:
  • Three plays, minus-5 yards, no points
  • Three plays, minus-4 yards, no points
  • Four plays, minus-1 yard, 3 points
  • Three plays, minus-1 yard, no points
  • Four plays, 2 yards, no points