AFC South: Eygene Monroe

Final Word: AFC South

September, 14, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Castonzo
AP Photo/Tom GannamThe Colts' Anthony Castonzo has a rather tough assignment on Sunday -- contain the Vikings' Jared Allen.
Line makeup: We came into the week thinking Colts newcomer Trai Essex could take over for Winston Justice at right tackle, but Justice seems to have bounced back from the concussion he suffered Sunday in Chicago. He’s practicing and it’s left guard Joe Reitz who remains a question. Seth Olsen is not a quality replacement, and Essex is versatile enough to play either guard or tackle spot. Perhaps he replaces Olsen rather than Justice? The No. 1 question on the offensive line will be how left tackle Anthony Castonzo can do against end Jared Allen, who was largely held in check last week by Jacksonville’s Eugene Monroe.

Line makeup, II: The Jaguars are banged up in a big way on the offensive line. Starting right tackle Cameron Bradfield and starting left guard Eben Britton could both miss the game with ankle injuries, which would mean Guy Whimper or waiver claim Troy Kropog at right tackle and undrafted rookie Mike Brewster at left guard. That’s hardly an ideal scenario against the Texans’ swarming front. It looks like a big mismatch. But often what looks like a big mismatch in a divisional game during the preparation week doesn’t turn out to be the major issue.

Struggling in Cali: The Titans have lost eight in a row against the Chargers, dating all the way to 1993. San Diego’s 3-4 front has given Tennessee problems in recent years, and first-round draft pick Melvin Ingram, an outside linebacker, is a part of packages that will be another complicated thing for Jake Locker to sort through. The quarterback will be playing with a banged-up left (non-throwing) shoulder. But he will be throwing against a banged-up secondary too, so if he can get protection he may be able to find plays downfield with Kenny Britt back in the lineup.

Playing stout: The Colts allowed 3.5 yards a carry in their season-opening loss to the Bears. That wasn’t as bad as some of us anticipated it could be. But Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson will be a different level of challenge. He found the end zone twice in his first game back with a reconstructed knee in the Vikings' win over Jacksonville. The Colts remains susceptible to the run and are going to get tested. If and when they can get the Vikings into tough passing downs, will Dwight Freeney be available to chase Christian Ponder? If his ankle injury holds him out, the Colts are then deficient in that area as well, which would be bad news.

Improvement: Good teams respond to week-to-week problems. Texans coach Gary Kubiak wasn’t pleased with the way his team ran the ball and the way it performed on special teams, even though it posted a 20-point win over Miami in the opener. His players should respond to points of emphasis and show improvement in those areas. Jacksonville’s big point of emphasis has been better tackling, and it will need to wrap up the likes of Arian Foster and Andre Johnson to have a chance in this game. Outside linebacker Daryl Smith would be a boon, but he looks unlikely to make it back from a groin/abdomen injury. If corner Derek Cox is back from his hamstring problem, coverage should be a strong suit.
Our preview pages are up, and you can now see what 14 of us at think of every team in the league, read the rationale for our positioning and see the consensus division finish for each.

Here are direct links to Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee.

I picked the division to stack up like it did last year: Titans, Colts, Texans and Jaguars. And I expect both Tennessee and Indianapolis to advance to the playoffs.

I’ve bounced back and forth between the Titans and Colts through the offseason and preseason, and I think they will be neck and neck, perhaps coming down to the final games on Jan. 3 when neither has a favorable matchup -- the Titans play at Seattle and have been consistently horrid on the West Coast in recent years; the Colts play at Buffalo where who knows what the temperature, winds and precipitation might be.

I won’t be surprised if either wins the division, and I understand that Peyton Manning is the division’s best player and can make a guy look silly for picking against his team.

But the one thing I keep coming back to, and I was talking about it well before training camp, is left tackle and the offensive line, where second-year right guard Mike Pollak also rates as somewhat of a question mark. Whether it’s Charlie Johnson or Tony Ugoh at left tackle, it’s going to qualify as a weak spot.

I understand Gijon Robinson and the young tight ends will be asked to help him most often. But that means one less weapon on the field out of the five eligible players. And while Manning is going to get the ball out in a hurry, couldn't it also mean that one important target -- Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai or Donald Brown -- is out on fewer routes as he is called on to help?

It’s the biggest hole/issue I see in the starting 22 for either team. Yes, I think the Titans will be able to effectively stop the run and rush the passer without Albert Haynesworth. Jeff Fisher’s got a pretty good track record for minimizing personnel losses.

Those things prompt my gut feeling to say the Titans will repeat.

As for the rest of the division ...

For good teams and bad teams, it’s easier to discount the preseason. But for a team in the middle trying to make a jump, to perform as the Texans did in the preseason leaves me concerned. I was uninspired by the safeties heading into camp, and I am also uninspired by the defensive tackles coming out of it. If they cannot start with stopping the run, in a division with Chris Johnson/LenDale White, Maurice Jones-Drew and Addai/Brown, I can’t see how they have much of a chance to close on Tennessee or Indy.

I like that Jacksonville is turning quickly to youngsters like Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton, Terrance Knighton and Derek Cox. Put them in the AFC West and maybe they could be a second-place team. But in this division, it will be hard for the bulk of those inexperienced players and other unproven pieces like Atiyyah Ellison, Sean Considine, Quentin Groves, Mike Sims-Walker and Troy Williamson to all play well simultaneously. And that’s what it would take for a significant leap that would catch Houston.