AFC South: Dunta Robinson

Saturday’s mailbag led with a note from a frustrated Jags fan.

It was such a big hit, I thought we’d give a frustrated Texans fan a chance.

LX Aguirre from El Paso writes: Will the Houston Texans show some signs of intelligence any time soon???? After their first playoff appearance and a small taste of victory on wildcard weekend, I expected more from them. The only moves they've made so far were the retention of Myers and Foster. You may reason that the team's inactivity is due to salary cap issues, but that excuse becomes irrelevant when the team is willing to trade its Defensive Captain and lose money in the process. The betrayal to DeMeco was magnified because the team had just lost M. Williams, the most powerful defensive weapon; and the lopsided trade showed that management has a disregard for team continuity, fan loyalty, and esprit de corps. For the Texans, continuity involves getting rid of their good players like Williams and D. Ryans (Pollard, Leach, Robinson in previous years) while stubbornly holding on to unproductive failures like J. Jones, K. Jackson (ESPECIALLY KAREEM JACKSON!!!!), and Quinn. With Manning gone, the division is almost a guarantee, but the Texans will lose the crown this year because of indecisiveness and lack of aggression.

Paul Kuharsky: I am taking a deep breath … OK, I am ready.

Has it been a good offseason? Of course not. But good teams tend to be up against it financially and lose good players. They took an additional $750,000 loss on Ryans this year to save a ton of money over the next three years. That money will help them be able to sign guys like Duane Brown and Connor Barwin, and prevent you from ripping them next year for not holding the team together.

DeMeco Ryans was a great leader, but no longer a very good player. He wasn’t even on the field for 60 percent of the team’s defensive plays. You think they’d have been sitting him so often if he was great for them?

You wanted them to keep Bernard Pollard, who couldn’t cover, and Vonta Leach, who got way too much money and plays one-third of the snaps, and Dunta Robinson, who was not close to worth what Atlanta gave him? I’d argue that you are being too emotional.

Glover Quin (with one N) is a good player, I don’t know why you would lump him in with Jacoby Jones and Kareem Jackson. Do they like those two guys too much? Sure. But it’s too early to give up on Jackson and the savings would be minimal at this point. And why cut Jones right now without a replacement in sight? Dumping him wasn’t going to save a guy they lost.

The three areas you list as dented are all not nearly as relevant to team success as you may think.

Continuity is nice (especially on the offensive line). But teams regularly turn over 25 to 35 percent of their roster.

You don’t really want teams making decisions based on fan loyalty, do you? Fan loyalty can change week-to-week, and a lot of fans are loyal to Tim Tebow despite the fact he can’t throw with anything close to NFL-caliber accuracy. Should the Broncos have kept him because of fan loyalty? Should the Texans have overspent on Leach and Robinson just because you liked them?

Esprit de corps? Sure, guys are upset in the offseason when they see good players and friends leave. When it comes time to play, if they are pros, they go out and do their job and expect the guys beside them to do theirs. Collectively, they should get good results. Trust me, come the first huddle, an NFL players mentality doesn’t allow him to look around in there and sentimentally contemplate who isn’t there.

The Texans have work to do. But it’s not a train wreck. They showed good depth last year. Now they need guys to step into roles that opened and for players like corner Brandon Harris and outside linebacker Bryan Braman to be that depth. They’ll restock with the draft and contend for the division and a deep run into the playoffs, I’d bet.

Outsiders' review of AFC South needs

February, 13, 2012
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Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders runs through the primary need of each AFC South team in this Insider piece . Here’s a peek at what he has to say with my reflections.

Houston Texans: Wide receiver

McCown: “The Texans enter free agency as a team with a promising amount of depth at many key areas, but Andre Johnson's injury last season exposed the fact that Houston's wide receivers simply aren't up to snuff without him ...

“The Texans will look hard at receivers in free agency and the draft. It's unlikely that they'll land a top-tier wideout like Marques Colston or Vincent Jackson because they still need to budget money carefully for players like Mario Williams, Arian Foster and Chris Myers. But a mid-level receiver like Steve Johnson, Reggie Wayne or Robert Meachem could potentially be brought in.

“More likely, however, the path for improvement will come through the draft.”

Paul Kuharsky: I think the Texans like Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones better than most analysts, but the long stretches without Johnson made them overly reliant on Foster as a target showed they don’t have enough at wideout.

Indianapolis Colts: Wide receiver

McCown: “Of the top five receivers on the Colts' depth chart going into last season, only Austin Collie and Blair White are under contract for 2012. Reggie Wayne, who will turn 34 during the 2012 season, is likely on the outs as this team begins a rebuilding phase. The Colts have expressed interest in re-signing free agent Pierre Garcon, who has generally fared very poorly in our receiving numbers. Garcon came out as below-replacement value last year, but he has ideal deep speed, and playing with Dan Orlovsky or Curtis Painter will make any speed receiver look worse than he really is. Anthony Gonzalez is also finally out the door after a disappointing, injury-plagued career in Colts blue.

“Again, given the direction of the team, it's rather unlikely that the Colts will be players for an elite free-agent receiver, but they could probably be in on the mid-tier targets with an eye toward youth. Players like Laurent Robinson, Harry Douglas or Andre Caldwell could make sense here. The Colts could also spend their second- or third-round picks on a receiver who could compete for snaps.”

Kuharsky: McCown writes he skipped past quarterback knowing it will be addressed with the No. 1 pick. Receiver is certainly a concern, but I think cornerback may rate as even bigger for a team that hired a defensive head coach in Chuck Pagano. If the new regime likes Jerraud Powers, the team still ranks as thin in coverage guys after him.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide receiver

McCown: "Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson summed it up best when he said: 'Those guys couldn't get a [expletive] receiver if it hit them in the head. They haven't had anyone since Jimmy Smith. ...'

“There are two ways to (upgrade). The Jaguars could make a play for Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson or DeSean Jackson. They certainly have the cap space to accomplish such a goal and could even bowl over someone who is iffy about Jacksonville with extra money. Or they could see if Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon falls into their laps at No. 7 overall, which would certainly be a more cost-conscious, if risky, move.”

Kuharsky: We are certainly talking about more than one guy. The Jaguars could aggressively shop in free agency and get a first-tier and second-tier guy. Or they could grab one veteran and spend a premium pick on another receiver. Upgrading the weapons for Blaine Gabbert is definitely priority No. 1.

Tennessee Titans: Defensive end

McCown: “Assuming that the Titans continue to handcuff themselves to the declining Chris Johnson, the biggest need in Nashville is an elite pass-rusher. When Jason Babin joined former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn in defecting to the Eagles, the Titans' adjusted sack rate fell from 13th in the NFL in 2010 to second-to-last in 2011. Moreover, only two teams generated fewer quarterback hits from their top pass-rushers than the six the Titans had from Dave Ball: the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills ...

“If they can't address defensive end in free agency, then a pass rusher will likely be a top priority for the Titans with their first-round pick. If they do pick up a premier sack artist, then it would give them an opportunity to spend the pick on a safety or wide receiver, which are also positions that could use reinforcement in Nashville.”

Kuharsky: The Titans need immediate impact at the spot. I don’t expect them to overpay Williams if he's free. The free-agent crop behind him could be thin if guys get franchised. Can they find a reclamation type like Babin who will be an upgrade on opening day? Will a guy who can consistently get into the backfield still be on the draft board at No. 20?

RTC: Johnson vs. Robinson intriguing

December, 1, 2011
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans


T.J. Yates and Jake Delhomme were in high demand on the Texans’ first day of preparation for the Falcons, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Andre Johnson is ready for a matchup with old friend Dunta Robinson, says McClain.

Indianapolis Colts


Dan Orlovsky wants to avoid 0-16 again, says Phil Richards.

Players were surprised Larry Coyer was fired, but they know jobs are on the line, says Phillip. B. Wilson.

Peyton Manning will have news this week, our Chris Mortensen says.

Jacksonville Jaguars


Mel Tucker shook up the receivers in his first major moves as head coach, says Tania Ganguli.

Fred Taylor does not have a high opinion of Jack Del Rio, writes Eric Adelson of The Post Game.

The Jaguars are making a ticket push for Monday night with the new owner ready to make his first appearance at EverBank Field, says Vito Stellino.

Tennessee Titans


Derrick Morgan has had more injuries than sacks in his career so far, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Chris Johnson says the focus isn’t yards, it’s the playoffs, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. Also in this notebook, former punter Craig Hentrich is suing the Titans over benefits under worker’s compensation.

Missed this earlier in the week: Mike Munchak’s daring calls on fourth down has paid off, says David Boclair of the Nashville City Paper.

Titans not inconsistent, just average

November, 20, 2011
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Michael TurnerDaniel Shirey/US PresswireTennessee was unable to contain Michael Turner as he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown.
ATLANTA -- The Titans are getting mislabeled.

They are not an inconsistent team. If anything, their 23-17 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome made them even more predictable.

Over their past eight games, the formula’s been simple: They have beaten bad teams and lost to good ones.

It’s easy to see they are better than Denver, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Carolina. It’s just as clear they are not in a class with Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

The Titans are too sloppy, don’t find enough big plays and don’t match up well enough with quality teams. Ten games into the season, they’re 5-5 and it’s exactly what they deserve.

Sunday they played good enough red zone defense to stay in the game, but could never get back to even from 13-0 and 23-3 deficits.

A look at three key issues for Tennessee coming out of the game:

The quarterback situation: Matt Hasselbeck banged his elbow as he threw late in the third quarter. He couldn’t generate any power on the ball after that, so doctors had him yield to rookie Jake Locker.

“He did exactly what a second-team quarterback should do when he gets an opportunity,” coach Mike Munchak said.

Locker moved right and hit Nate Washington, who stiff-armed a defender and ran to the end zone on a 40-yard touchdown play. In the fourth quarter, working in hurry-up mode out of the shotgun, he ran for 11 yards on a third-and-10, he hit tight end Jared Cook for 22 yards on a fourth-and-17 and he found Washington for another touchdown with 3:09 left in the game.

The defense, however, couldn’t get provide him a chance to engineer a game-winning drive.

Locker finished with a 107.3 passer rating, but the Titans diffused any possibility of a quarterback controversy.

Hasselbeck is sore and he had ice wrapped around the inside of his left elbow and forearm as he spoke to the press. He said he’ll have an MRI Monday. Munchak said he wasn’t about to make a change based on the small sampling of Locker. If Hasselbeck is fine, “he’s the quarterback, there is no doubt about that.”

While Hasselbeck hardly has his best game -- 13-of-25 passing for 124 yards, an interception and a 49.4 passer rating -- the Titans aren’t going to forget how large a role he’s played in many of their good moments this season.

“Jake kind of puts a defense on its heels a little bit, because you’ve got a younger guy who can run,” receiver Lavelle Hawkins said. “That’s taking nothing away from Matt, because Matt is a great mind who knows how to read a lot of stuff and sees a lot of things before they happen. I think either, or is great.”

Making mistakes: Munchak’s Titans were supposed to be a disciplined team that executed precisely. But there was a major lack of precision in key moments against the Falcons.

The Falcons went for it on fourth-and-1 twice in the second half.

They motioned and reset, then motioned and reset again, making it seem like they were merely waiting for the defense to jump. On the first instance, Matt Ryan had the ball snapped and snuck at an unexpected time in the long sequence of shuffling.

And on the second, defensive end William Hayes was flagged for jumping offsides.

“There is no excuse for me doing that, it’s fourth-and-1, I’ve got to be patient,” Hayes said. “They got me.”

He actually got bailed out as Colin McCarthy forced a Michael Turner fumble on the next play and Will Witherspoon recovered it.

That’s when Locker took the Titans on the 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to six with 3:06 left.

With three timeouts and the two-minute warning, Tennessee then needed to force a punt to get Locker the ball back.

And on the very first play from scrimmage, safety Jordan Babineaux slipped off Turner, allowing him to spring free for a 27-yard gain. Two Jason Snelling carries and a 6-yard Harry Douglas catch later and Ryan was ready to take a knee three times and shake some hands.

The Titans failed to slow Atlanta’s stars. Ryan passed for 316 yards, Turner ran for 100 and receiver Roddy White pulled in seven catches for 147 yards.

On top of that, the Titans were flagged for 10 penalties. They accounted for 86 yards and five of the Falcons’ 25 first downs.

“We didn’t play smart for 60 minutes,” Munchak said.

Mixed up routes: It seems every game the receivers have at least one mixed-up moment that costs Tennessee a chance or causes a problem.

The Titans were behind only 7-0 when the biggie in this game arrived.

Hasselbeck threw up the left side and Hawkins appeared to be out of position as cornerback Dunta Robinson intercepted the pass.

The receiver stopped running, looking around puzzled instead of pouncing to touch Robinson while he was down. Robinson got up and ran for 14 yards.

Guard Jake Scott yelled at Hawkins over the failure to stop a return. Hasselbeck pointed and screamed as he left the field, clearly annoyed by the way the play unfolded.

Damian Williams, who ran a post on the same side of the field, said the underneath receiver is supposed to cut in if the Titans are running it or cut out if they are throwing it. He said he was partially to blame for not getting the check communicated.

Said Hasselbeck: “I believe what happened is when I checked, Hawk wasn’t looking at me. I think when I checked they were adjusting who was on the ball, who was off the ball. I was trying to throw it to Hawk, yes. I’m not sure if he knew it was a pass or not.”

Mistakes will happen, I understand.

If the Titans are getting 1.1 yards a carry from Chris Johnson, they need to be an exact passing offense, however. Under the previous regime, Hawkins didn’t get on the field much because he was regarded as undependable.

On that and the Titans being average or worse, things don’t appear to have changed much.
Our periodic look at the best and worst draft picks by position for each team moves to cornerback. We’re looking at draft results since realignment in 2002, since that’s when the Texans came into existence and gives us the most level comparison…

Houston Texans

Best: Dunta Robinson, taken 10th overall in 2004, lived up to his first-round pick status for a good segment of his career. He tops three categories in the team’s record books, with six picks as a rookie, 13 in his career and two seasons leading the team in interceptions. I understood not paying him big bucks and allowing him to leave as a free agent before the 2010 season. But the Texans failed to sufficiently replace him and had a brutal pass defense last season.

Worst: Fred Bennett (fourth-rounder in 2007) had some well-documented struggles and Antwaun Molden (third in 2008) has never lived up to his initial training camp, but Vontez Davis wins the honor here. A sixth-rounder from 2004, he also got a look from Chicago and time on the practice squads in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh but never played a game in the NFL. (Nevertheless, this autographed picture of him as a Texans still goes for $15.99.)

Indianapolis Colts

Best: Perhaps it’s projecting a bit, because his best football is surely ahead of him, but Jerraud Powers was an excellent find out of Auburn in the third round in 2009. He was the team’s best cornerback last season before suffering a season-ending right forearm injury and looks to be the kind of piece that continues to sustain the franchise -- a real find outside of the first couple rounds.

Worst: Daymeion Hughes was a third-round pick out of Cal in 2007 who later became known as Dante Hughes. Under either name, he never proved he could cover effectively for Indianapolis. He played in 24 games in two seasons and couldn’t stick beyond that. He’s been with San Diego the past two seasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Best: Rashean Mathis was a little known guy coming out of Bethune-Cookman in 2003. But the Jaguars spent a second-round pick on him and got a starter from Day 1. He has started every game he’s played, and has missed just a dozen games in eight seasons. In the past two years, a new regime swept out a lot of veteran guys. But Mathis has remained a fixture.

Worst: Scott Starks was a third-round choice out of Wisconsin in 2005 who never really qualified as more than a nickelback and hardly provided what Jaguars with an answer in the secondary. He lasted five seasons and played in 54 games, but started only one and recorded only two interceptions. Sure you’d like the Jaguars to have found a gem out of Steve Smith (seventh-rounder in 2002), Chris Roberson (seventh, 2005) and Dee Webb (seventh, 2006) but expectations for all of them paled in comparison to a third-rounder like Starks.

Tennessee Titans

Best: The Titans did much to bail themselves out of failed first-round picks at the position like Pacman Jones and Andre Woolfolk by hitting on Cortland Finnegan out of Samford in the seventh round in 2006. While he has dropped off since an All-Pro 2008, he still ranks as a ridiculously good find with the 215th pick.

Worst: The Titans needed Woolfolk to become a fixture in the secondary when they spent the 28th overall pick in the 2003 draft on him. But he never showed any consistency and ultimately qualified as a bust, with just 11 starts and three interceptions in four years. He failed to emerge as a player who ranked ahead of a seventh-rounder like Reynaldo Hill.
If and when there is free agency, the Texans need to dip into it to try to solve their issues in the secondary. I think they should throw open the vault and be sure to land either Nnamdi Asomugha or Champ Bailey.

But as Green Bay prepares to play for the NFC title in Chicago on Sunday, it’s a good time to note that the Texans had one of the league’s best young cornerbacks on their roster in 2006.

The Texans had the foresight to bring Tramon Williams in as an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana Tech on May 8, 2006. Unfortunately, their ability to see big things in him ended after training camp and he was released on Sept. 6, 2006.

He was available to everyone in the league for months before the Packers signed him to their practice squad on Nov. 29 for the final five weeks of the season. In 2007 he was a training camp surprise, earning a roster spot. He’s played in every game since, with 16 interceptions. In the same span, the Texans don’t have a player with more than five interceptions.

Here are the guys who played cornerback for the 2006 Texans: Dunta Robinson, Dexter McCleon, Demarcus Faggins, Lewis Sanders, Kevin Garrett, Von Hutchins and Dexter Wynn.

Every team in the league let go of someone it wishes it held on to.

The Texans will be watching their prime example play in the NFC Championship Game, then either the Super Bowl or the Pro Bowl.

Houston's Kiddie Corners plan flawed

October, 14, 2010
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Kareem JacksonDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireFirst-round draft pick Kareem Jackson hasn't gotten off to the start the Texans had hoped for.
The secondary has to cover better. The pass rush has to help by hurrying quarterbacks more often or getting them off rhythm.

Certainly the personnel deserves a lion’s share of blame for what’s wrong with the Houston Texans so far.

The players are the ones who compose the league’s 32nd-ranked pass defense, after all. They are the one’s giving up an average of 329.6 passing yards a game and 8.34 yards per pass attempt. They are the ones quarterbacks are tossing it over and between while mounting a gaudy combined passer rating of 104.0.

Still, they aren’t the only culprits here.

Coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith crafted this roster. When they trimmed it on cut day, they decided the Kiddie Corners -- starters Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin, nickel guy Brice McCain and backup Sherrick McManis -- would suffice.

The formula, however, counted on a few things that haven’t happened yet:

  • Quick and steady growth by the corners.
  • An improved pass rush that would force quarterbacks to hurry.
  • A high-scoring offense that would mean it was OK if the opponent could mount yards and points.

After two weeks, I thought it was too early to worry. Now, however, the team still doesn’t get a check-mark on any of those.

This leaves a stand-up guy like Quin saying: “If you can’t stop it, they’re going to continue to do it. That gives us a chance to make a bunch of plays in the pass game and put on film and show the league you can’t just sit there and throw the ball on us. But it’s going to take more than one game to stop the pass until we weather the storm and get out of it.”

Let’s circle back and take on those three issues one at a time.

1) The corners are struggling, with first-rounder Jackson topping the list. It seems the Texans are asking a lot of him awfully soon. Maybe it hardens him quickly and we see a growth spurt.

In the meantime, however, when they want to scale him back as they did Sunday in the home blowout at the hands of the Giants, the alternative is to use McCain as the second corner, with McManis, a fifth-round rookie, in the nickel package.

I had no problem with the team admitting Fred Bennett and Jacques Reeves were no longer useful and letting them go. But at some point after they decided to let Dunta Robinson walk (he wasn’t worth the money) and they failed to land Leigh Bodden (he may have used them to secure a deal in New England), they needed to add a veteran with the potential to be a useful reserve who can at least calm panic and be average.

Who? I don’t know. But players like Walt Harris, Ellis Hobbs, Lito Sheppard and Benny Sapp changed teams and have roles where they are. Rod Hood might have been the same sort of guy had he not gotten hurt.

One of them or someone else could have provided more than Karl Paymah, the current veteran on the bench who’s still learning the system. You need a guy who can fill in if the kids need a break and can be a resource to them -- though Quin said talking to a veteran isn’t such a huge help, that young guys simply need to learn through experience.

Barring injuries, I think it’s an architectural mistake when a team doesn’t have a reasonable mix of youth and experience at a position group. This qualifies as that.

Smith disagrees.

“I can’t tell you that I have ever really sat down and said, ‘Gosh, we’ve got all young guys in this group, we need a veteran,’” he said. “Because if all the young guys are playing well, you don’t need a veteran. It’s difficult to look at it that way. ...”

“When you make a decision to go young, particularly in the secondary, you do that with the full awareness that there are going to be some growing pains. We certainly are experiencing some of those. But you do that because you are betting on the upside. And you know once you learn those lessons and get through some of those tough experiences you’re going to have a group of players that is capable of playing together for a while at a high level. I believe they’ll answer the call and we’ll play good defense.”

Players want to prove that Smith and Kubiak did the right thing, Quin said.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIGlover Quin is still searching for his first career interception.
“Those guys see something or saw something that they felt like, ‘We’re going to go in this direction and it’s going to be good for us,’” Quin said. “So I don’t feel like just because we started off the season and we’re last, this was a bad decision. We’ve got to play better and make it a great decision. They stuck their necks out for us, now we have to go out and perform for them.”

2) The rush got only one addition of note, tackle Earl Mitchell, a third-round pick. Connor Barwin, a rush-specialist end, was lost for the season with an injury suffered opening day, which hurt as he was in line to be the most improved player on the team.

But the Kubiak-Smith duo doesn’t appear to have done enough here either, expecting patience would pay off with growth that we simply haven’t seen.

They hope Mark Anderson or Adewale Ogunleye can catch on to what they are doing and ultimately help replace Barwin. A second rushing force to go with Mario Williams is crucial, and a better rush would offer a lot of relief to the defensive backs.

The Texans have faced very good quarterbacks so far.

Still, according to ESPN Stats & Information, they have thrown 147 passes against the Texans when they’ve rushed just four defenders, completing 111 of them for a 75.5 percentage and 1,352 yards. Those are the highest number in the league in each of those categories.

With a four-man rush, the Texans have given up eight touchdowns, a 110.1 passer rating and recorded only four sacks.

For context: The Tennessee Titans have faced 10 fewer pass attempts against their standard pressure and have 10 more sacks than Houston in those situations.

“I think Mario Williams has been great,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “Fulfilling all of his vast and amazing potential. But the rest of the crew is letting him and their terrible pass defense down.”

3) It was reasonable to expect that the Texans, who felt they’d made great strides in balancing out the offense and running in the red zone, would improve from 10th in scoring a year ago. Overly reliant on the pass, the 2009 Texans averaged just more than 24 points a game.

Matt Schaub’s got enough on his plate with his own struggles, which include an adjustment to coordinator Rick Dennison and a balky ankle for Andre Johnson.

Now as the leader of the offense, he sees his counterparts slinging the ball all over the field and has to be feeling more pressure than he should to get some crooked numbers on his side of the scoreboard.

With no major personnel change, the team’s gotten a touch less than that while allowing nearly a touchdown more a game. It’s hit 30 points in three wins.

But in two hard-to-swallow blowouts, the Texans' offense struggled. It didn't get a touchdown against Dallas until under two minutes were left. It didn’t find the end zone against the Giants until the third quarter.

“We’ve hit a couple of rough patches, but that’s expected,” Smith said. “I’ve got total confidence in our guys and that we’ll make plays and continue to play good on offense.”

Houston’s been outscored 78-40 in the first half. The offense can do more to keep the Texans in a tough game.
It wasn’t a popular decision. It wasn’t ideal, either. But the Houston Texans like their three young corners and decided their up-and-comers can handle two games a year against Peyton Manning as their franchise tries to keep up with the Colts.

[+] EnlargeBrice McCain
AP Photo/David J. PhillipCornerback Brice McCain will play in the nickel package for Houston.
So first-round pick Kareem Jackson and second-year man Glover Quin will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. In the nickel package, Brice McCain will take Glover’s spot outside as Glover shifts to the slot.

This piece on the "Kiddie Corners" from Dale Robertson suggests they have the right bravado for the job. Quin told his wife he’d like his first pick to come against Manning, and that if it did he’d try to get the quarterback to sign the ball for him.

McCain already picked off Manning, in a 2-minute situation last year in one of the Texans' two losses to Indianapolis.

I talked to McCain this week, and he said the trio isn’t looking for a game to ease into things. They like going against a top-flight passing offense immediately.

“It doesn’t matter who we play, you’ve got to go in with the same mindset that you’re a veteran corner,” he said. “As a whole group we have to come in and try to be consistent. No matter if it’s Peyton in front of you, no matter what receivers are in front of you.”

“… We’re just three young corners trying to make a mark. … We’d get a lot of respect from a lot of teams if we came out and played well against Peyton. But one game isn’t enough. We need to do it game-in, game-out. We’re trying to be respected around the league -- that’s one of our goals.”

While he wasn’t always involved, McCain estimated the Texans played 80 percent nickel in their two games against the Colts in 2009. Minus suspended outside linebacker Brian Cushing, the Texans could be even quicker to turn to it if they prefer having McCain on the field to Cushing’s replacement, Xavier Adibi.

Reggie Wayne tends to stay on the left for the Colts, though they sometimes put him in the slot. Otherwise, McCain said the defensive backs expect a mix of Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie along with Dallas Clark.

The Colts have offensive line issues, and pressure from Houston’s front that makes Manning work faster than he would like is something those corners will need to hold up.

“That’s every game,” McCain said. “If you want to be a great defense, a great secondary, it starts with the front.”

It’s a trial-by-fire scenario, though Quin got excellent experience in his rookie season and McCain got some. The Texans have talked up how NFL-ready Jackson is as a result of playing for Nick Saban at Alabama.

It’s not like the Texans have veteran insurance behind them. The oft-injured Antwaun Molden, who's been out this week with an ankle issue, is in his third season and two other rookies are backups -- Jamar Wall and Sherrick McManis. Gone are veterans Dunta Robinson, Fred Bennett and Jacques Reeves. It’s hard to blame the Texans for giving up on any of them, as Robinson’s price was too high and Bennett and Reeves were too inconsistent.

But the Texans’ season could well hinge on the secondary, and Manning’s not the only top quarterback Houston faces.

Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are on the docket in the first half of the season. Things ease up from there.

McCain will play against their receivers more physically than he did last year. He’s up only five pounds but is stronger and has adjusted his attitude.

“Last year I started to carry the reputation of being a cover corner, but I wanted to change that perception,” he said. “I think I am a much better player by being more physical now. I gained weight, I’m stronger than I was last year and I am a better tackler.”

AFC South training camp preview

July, 29, 2010
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We see teams go first-to-worst or worst-to-first all the time in the NFL -- except in the AFC South, where the Colts have won the division crown in six of eight chances since realignment and have won 12 games or more seven years running.

Indianapolis’ successes, and its four-time MVP quarterback, make it hard to predict a dramatic, upside-down season in the division.

The question is more about who can close the gap on Manning and the Colts; how the Texans, Titans and Jaguars stack up; and if one of them can find a door into the playoffs as a wild card.

The Texans and Jaguars begin their push with camp practices Friday. The Titans open Saturday, and the Colts are on the field Monday.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesMario Williams has 35 sacks the past three seasons.
Houston Texans: How does the defense better defend the pass?

Veteran corner Dunta Robinson is gone, first-round pick Kareem Jackson is in as the team’s top corner. Is a secondary of Jackson and Glover Quin at corner, Eugene Wilson at free safety and Bernard Pollard at strong safety enough to slow down opposing offenses? Not without two other major developments.

The defensive front must apply more consistent and effective pass pressure. A monster season from Mario Williams, a big second year from Connor Barwin and more toughness from Amobi Okoye could do the trick. Okoye in particular needs a big camp or he could lose reps to rookie Earl Mitchell. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson and a better run game could help a great deal, too -- if Houston is able to put up big points, some opponents won’t be able to take advantage of that secondary enough to keep up.

Indianapolis Colts: How do the receivers shake out?

If Anthony Gonzalez is healthy and back to form, the Colts could be stacked at receiver. Provided Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie can build on what they did with Gonzalez out for all but the first game last season, the Colts should be four-deep at receiver with those three behind Reggie Wayne. With Wayne leading the way and tight end Dallas Clark also coming off a 100-reception season, Peyton Manning could have his best group of pass-catchers ever.

I think if everyone is healthy, everyone will get chances. Perhaps certain games and certain matchups will call for certain guys to be used more. But I can’t see Gonzalez, Garcon or Collie with a significantly minimized role unless one of them plays his way to the bench or is injured.

Tyson Alualu
AP Photo/John RaouxTyson Alualu was the first of four defensive linemen the Jaguars drafted in 2010.
Jacksonville Jaguars: How will the defensive line rotation develop?

New line coach Joe Cullen will want his best guys on the field the most, but he’s also going to have to get them some rest so they can play fresh. Presuming Aaron Kampman and Derrick Harvey start at end and Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu start at tackle, who will be the guys behind them that ensure minimal drop-off?

Rookie ends Larry Hart and Austen Lane and rookie tackle D'Anthony Smith will all have opportunities as the Jaguars try to get to the quarterback a lot more often a year after collecting just 14 sacks. If the rush is better, watch the linebackers and secondary become better, too.

Tennessee Titans: Have the Titans cured their return game woes?

Things were so bad a year ago that when the Titans found guys who could fair catch punts while backing inside the 10-yard line it was considered a moral victory. Coach Jeff Fisher considers himself a return expert because of his own experience as a player. To his credit, he confessed he botched it last year by being overly reliant on unproven rookies. The solution? The Titans hope it’s unproven rookie Damian Williams, a third-round receiver out of USC.

If he’s muffing punts and kicks in camp, we should also see rookie Marc Mariani fielding punts, and we could see Kenny Britt back to fetching kickoffs. Merely being able to avoid mistakes shouldn’t be good enough. The Titans should expect to make plays in the return games.

HOTTEST SEATS

Colts: Offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars: He’s got the confidence and full backing of president Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. But replacing legendary coach Howard Mudd is a large charge. And it’s widely held that the group he’s working with isn’t composed of great run-blockers and benefits a great deal in the passing game from Manning’s propensity for getting the ball out quickly. During summer workouts, players said that Metzelaars had already tinkered with some technique and re-energized the group.

[+] EnlargeMichael Griffin
AP Photo/Wade PayneA Pro Bowler in 2008, Michael Griffin had a subpar season in 2009.
Jaguars: David Garrard. Jacksonville’s quarterback is 32 years old, and while his term as a starter began relatively late, he’s at a point where a lot of people give him the underwhelming description of “he is what he is.” If things unfold according to how a play is drawn up, he can be good. But things rarely unfold like that. He can be too inaccurate and doesn’t execute in the clutch often enough. Good season or not, the Jaguars are expected to look to draft a first-round quarterback in 2011.

Texans: Kareem Jackson. You hate to be overly reliant on a rookie, but the Texans have put themselves in that spot. First-rounder Jackson has to be able to cover tightly and find the ball if Houston stands a chance to so much as split with the Colts while Manning is dropping back and looking into the Texans’ secondary. They could have eased the pressure on their new No. 1 corner with an option beyond Eugene Wilson at free safety, but failed to address the position at all.

Titans: Michael Griffin. Tennessee is counting on a lot of young guys who are taking on bigger roles to be productive. But even if they are all good, it may not matter if Griffin, a Pro Bowl safety in his second season, plays as poorly as he did in his third. Distracted by off-the-field personal issues, he bit on play-action, took terrible angles and missed tackles he has to make while the Titans' pass defense fell apart. That won’t work with two games against Manning, two against Matt Schaub and matchups against Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers and Donovan McNabb.

[+] EnlargeBrody Eldridge
WD/Icon SMIThe Colts are hoping fifth-round pick Brody Eldridge can make a difference in the running game.
SECRET WEAPON

Colts TE Brody Eldridge. The Colts did not make a major addition to their offensive line mix after Bill Polian called the group out for its Super Bowl performance. The stretch play, once a staple of their run game, has largely disappeared without edge blockers who can lead it effectively. But fifth-round pick Eldridge can be a big influence in this department. Expect him to displace Gijon Robinson. And watch him work effectively as a pass-catcher as well.

INTERIOR DESIGNS

All four AFC South teams could look different on the interior offensive line on opening day. The Colts are looking at busted left tackle Tony Ugoh as a guard. The Jaguars brought in Justin Smiley, could be finished with aging Brad Meester and haven’t been wild about Vince Manuwai’s play since he returned from a 2008 knee injury. The Texans added veteran Wade Smith and would like second-year man Antoine Caldwell to seize a spot. Those three lines need sorting out.

The Titans, who had a 2,000-yard rusher and gave up only 15 sacks, have also made changes, shifting left guard Eugene Amano to center to replace Kevin Mawae, an unsigned free agent, while inserting Leroy Harris in Amano’s old spot.

It’s possible all four teams run better up the middle and shield their signal-callers from the inside rush better than they did a year ago.

As Aaron Schatz points out in this informative piece, the Indianapolis Colts are going to rank relatively high on broken tackles allowed -- it’s the nature of having smaller players and being built more for speed.

So it should not surprise us that Indy’s defense ranked second in the league in broken tackles allowed in 2009, with at least one on 7.6 percent of their plays.

Broken tackle rates in the AFC South:

Offense:
3) Titans, 6.5 percent

4) Jaguars, 6.4

9t) Colts, 6.2

14) Texans, 5.7

Defense
2) Colts, 7.6

10) Titans, 6.4

12t) Jaguars, 6.1

13) Texans, 6.0
Melvin Bullitt, a safety virtually everyone, including me, thinks played quite well, was tops in missed tackle in the AFC South.

Here’s the top 10 courtesy of Football Outsiders:
Melvin Bullitt, 14

DeMeco Ryans, 12

Gerald Alexander, 11

Clint Session, 11

Keith Bulluck, 11

Reggie Nelson, 9

Bernard Pollard, 9

Dunta Robinson, 8

Antoine Bethea, 8

Jerraud Powers, 8

A few thoughts:

  • Linebackers should be top tackles since they are most involved in getting to ball carriers on both run and pass plays. So 12 for Ryans or 11 for Session or Bulluck don’t strike me as exceptionally bad.
  • There are different degrees of broken tackles permitted. I think most of us would agree Nelson and Robinson killed their teams at times by allowing monster plays when they were the last or close-to-the-last guy with a chance to drag a player down. Defensive back missed tackles can have a much more severe impact. (Bullitt and Bethea, playing with such fast help, probably had more guys getting in range to help, at least outside of the New England game.) A safety who played terribly like Michael Griffin is missing here, probably because on his worst plays people were running past him and he didn’t even have a chance to miss.
  • All of these guys but Bulluck twice had to try stopping the blazing, slippery Chris Johnson. All of these guys but Alexander and Nelson twice had to deal with bowling ball Maurice Jones-Drew.
Youth and speed are always hot commodities in the NFL.

The 2009 Texans scored very well in the “functional average age” as calculated by Chase Stuart. He didn’t just look at the average age of the roster or the starters, he weighs a player’s age based on his role and contribution.

He concluded that Houston was the youngest team in the league with a team age of 25.9. The Texans were fifth on offense (26.5) and first on defense (25.3)

The biggest change on defense going forward is first-round pick Kareem Jackson taking over for departed cornerback Dunta Robinson, which should help keep the Texans especially young.

That the Texans went 9-7 with such youth was impressive.

Now it’s time for a double-digit win season and the franchise’s first playoff berth.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Texans' secondary improve and key a breakthrough against the Colts?

Things are looking up for the Texans, who had their first winning season and finished second in the AFC South in 2009.

[+] EnlargeJackson
Kirby Lee/US PresswireThe Texans are counting on Kareem Jackson to help bolster their secondary.
But the big question is whether a pass defense that was 18th in the league last season, allowing an average of 217.9 yards a game, will be better. Let's be blunt: For the Texans to challenge for the AFC South title, they've got to at least split their season series with Indianapolis. They are 1-15 all-time against Indy.

To break through and knock off the Colts, they’ll have to slow Peyton Manning.

In two wins over Houston last year, Manning completed 61 of 85 passes for 562 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions and a 90.4 passer rating.

But the Texans were certainly in range -- the road loss was 20-17, the home defeat was 35-27.

So how have the Texans gotten better defensively to be ready for Manning?

Sub first-round cornerback Kareem Jackson, a physical player, for Dunta Robinson, who to fled Atlanta in free agency. Add fifth-rounder Sherrick McManis to the cornerback pool that features unproven or inconsistent guys. Add defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who could produce a better push than Amobi Okoye in some situations. They did not address free safety, a position where I think they are overconfident in Eugene Wilson.

In that paragraph, it doesn’t look like enough.

But if second-round running back Ben Tate is what they expect, he’ll complete the offense. He’ll make Matt Schaub's play-action far tougher to read. He’ll convert a couple of crucial third-and-shorts.

That may mean less possessions for Manning and fewer minutes on the field for Houston’s defense.

The breakthrough now may actually be more about coaching and mental toughness than talent.

Last year at Indy Houston lost a crucial challenge that helped turn the tide. At Reliant Stadium, the Texans blew a lead and handed away momentum, a familiar storyline for them against the Colts.

Preparation, play calling, execution and, yes, mental toughness, are the things that may prove most significant for a tide-turning win.

But even if they get all that, if the secondary isn’t better, it may not matter.

The Texans have some guys who can be in position and still fail to make a play. They may have led the division in near-miss breakups last year. Earl Thomas' ball skills were a big reason a lot of people envisioned them loving him in the draft, but the safety from Texas was gone well before the Texans went on the clock at No. 20 and selected Jackson.

As a secondary, they need to track it, find it, knock it away, catch it. If they do those things more often, maybe they can challenge Indy. If they don’t, they’re playing for second place and a wild-ard berth just like Tennessee and Jacksonville.
This offseason, as well as last season, the Texans created some uncertainty with fans and in their own locker room.

Ryans
Ryans
While they’d committed long term to receiver Andre Johnson and right tackle Eric Winston, free agency loomed for other prime players: cornerback Dunta Robinson middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels.

Here’s a column on that from last summer.

Ryans, who missed out on unrestricted free agency because no salary cap in 2010 extended the service time needed to qualify, got a pricey tender and appeared to have to wait.

The wait ended Tuesday as he got a six-year, $48 million contract with $21.75 million guaranteed and $26.3 million in the first three years of the contract, according to Adam Schefter.

It looks to be a win-win deal for a team that extended the contract of Gary Kubiak this offseason and faces a make-or-break year with the playoffs the goal after the franchise’s first winning season.

Scouts and executives I’ve spoken to about Ryans simply love him and his constant proximity to the ball. His game is a great combination of physical gifts, instincts and intelligence. Texans' fans can relax because the team has shown it will commit to a guy who’s that prized combination of centerpiece and spokesman.

He and Brian Cushing, coming off a defensive rookie of the year season, should be one of the league’s top tandems for years to come.

The Texans let Robinson, now in Atlanta, depart as a free agent after a year with the franchise tag. Daniels, coming off another ACL tear, will likely be more complicated. But he said he’s confident once he’s healthy things will move forward.

Strong safety Bernard Pollard, an excellent early-season addition is another RFA the team should try to lock up long term.

In time, we’ll be asking about Daniels and Pollard.

But for right now, any questions about owner Bob McNair’s willingness to open the vault for the deserving should be tabled.

Kubiak assesses his CB situation

March, 24, 2010
3/24/10
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Gary Kubiak’s like most of us: With Dunta Robinson gone, he doesn’t know how to stack the cornerbacks remaining on his roster.

Glover Quin’s earned a starting spot, but ideally he’d be a No. 2 guy. Kubiak was asked at the owners meetings who would line up opposite Quin right now.

“I don’t know," he said. "There would be a lot of guys lining up there right now. You’ve got Jacques [Reeves]; you’ve got [Brice] McCain; we still think [Antwaun] Molden has a chance to be a fine player. We’ve been disappointed. He has not stayed on the field. But we do like him a lot. It’s an open book right now. They’ll all battle. We’ll see. To say who’s one, two or three, I don’t think any of us know that.”

Kubiak didn’t mention Fred Bennett there. I don’t know if that was on purpose or just an incomplete list, but he was asked a follow-up about Bennett and whether his fourth year will be a do-or-die season for him.

“I don’t want to say do or die," Kubiak said. "I don’t want to say that. Fred’s been so up and down. He’s been to the brink where he looks like he’s ready to be a starter in this league and he goes the other way. It’s time for some consistency out of Fred. He’s at a point in his career where he’s going to have to play like a starter and be more of a contributor to this football team or it’s going to be tough. I don’t think anybody knows that more than Fred. He can’t be staring at more of an opportunity than he’s ever stared out, so we’ll see how he handles it.”

There is no doubt the Texans bring in a corner in the draft, probably early.

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
12:04
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NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Houston Texans

Scratch interior offensive line as any sort of priority after the free-agent addition of Wade Smith. That still leaves the Texans with a lengthy list of holes to fill: Running back, cornerback, free safety and defensive tackle are the big four, and it’s hard to put the first three in any order; they are all big needs of roughly equal size. Without addressing the corner hole created by the departure of Dunta Robinson and finding a clear cut choice at free safety, it’s going to be awfully difficult to beat Peyton Manning and Indianapolis’ offense.

Indianapolis Colts

Do Adam Terry and Andy Alleman help alleviate concerns on the offensive line? Does J.D. Skolnitsky have a chance to be the third defensive end? We have no idea about the answers there, but I am not sure the Colts will alter their need list based on the addition of three players kicked to the curb by their old team. Not that they don’t make players out of such guys regularly. Offensive line, defensive end and depth at linebacker and corner are the areas I expect will be addressed.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Aaron Kampman takes the pressure off the Jaguars having to get a pass-rusher early. They are without a second round pick and if they don’t take an end with No. 10, there will not be a panic about waiting to the third round. Kassim Osgood strengthens special teams and gives the Jags another potential option at receiver, where they lack a playmaker beyond Mike Sims-Walker. End still is on the need list, along with linebacker, safety and an interior offensive lineman.

Tennessee Titans

Will Witherspoon greatly reduces the pressure on the Titans to find another linebacker. I expect if they take one it’ll be a late, developmental pick. A quality first-round option would be tempting still, but not with the holes at cornerback and defensive end. Those two spots are the primary needs, along with a reliable return man. Beyond that, they’ll need an interior lineman if Kevin Mawae isn’t back and some safety depth would be a help.

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