AFC South: Hot Button

Hot Button: AFC South

February, 9, 2009
2/09/09
11:22
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans

 
  Doug Benc/Getty Images
  Matt Schaub tossed 10 interceptions and lost four fumbles in 2008.

Primary issue: The 2007 Texans were a terrible turnover team, giving the ball away 38 times with interceptions and fumbles. Protecting the ball and taking it away from the opposition were huge themes from the time that season ended all the way through the 2008 season.

But Houston cut the giveaways by only six and improved its takeaway-giveaway ratio by just three, to minus-10. For a team that was far better on offense than defense, it's hard to harp on an offensive issue. But Gary Kubiak simply has to find a better way to get the message across to his team. The Texans were 2-5 when they had three or more turnovers and 5-2 when they had one or none.

Quarterback Matt Schaub needs to play a full season and find a balance between being an aggressive weapon and a turnover liability with picks and fumbles.

Solution: Stickum? The primary people with the ball in their hands aren't going to change, so Kubiak and his staff have to continue to pound the theme and seek new ways to get the message across. If the defense can improve from 22nd overall, perhaps the offense will squeeze the ball or force a play less often.

Secondary concern: The pass rush just wasn't sufficient and Mario Williams can't work alone. The Texans had 25 sacks, 12 from Williams. The teams that qualified for the playoffs in the AFC averaged 38 sacks and the Super Bowl champion Steelers had 51. In the AFC South, quick heat on Peyton Manning and an ability to get through Tennessee's solid line are necessities.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East
The Texans played better defensively at season's end when they were more aggressive. Under new defensive coordinator Frank Bush, they hope to continue the move to that style. But to make it work they need a second big-time pass-rusher who can take some pressure and attention off Williams and whose impact will trickle to the linebackers and secondary.

Solution: The Texans have the 15th and 46th picks on the first day of the draft, and ideally will be able to grab a defensive end or pass-rushing outside linebacker with one of those selections. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar could have a positive impact here.


Indianapolis Colts

 
  AP Photo/Tom Strattman
  The Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison duo may have seen its last days.

Primary concern: The way the Colts build, they're unlikely to be a premier rushing offense or a premier run-stopping defense. But they need to be consistently better at both.

Offensively, they dealt with a banged-up offensive line and feature back in 2008, but left tackle Tony Ugoh and running back Joseph Addai may have questions lingering about their toughness and production. If the team was confident enough in the run game that it could have handed off to convert a late third-and-2 in San Diego and succeeded, it would have advanced to a divisional-round playoff game in Pittsburgh. Is team president Bill Polian satisfied with the primary pieces or will he look for some alternatives, and what does his new coach, Jim Caldwell, want?

Defensively, the Colts suffered from the loss of size on the interior line with the unexpected retirement of Quinn Pitcock and the discipline-necessitated departure of Ed Johnson. They would benefit from getting stouter between Pro Bowl ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and such roster revisions should help them be more consistent against the run.

Solution: The Colts have not drafted a defensive tackle higher than the third round since 2002; in fact they've only drafted one -- Pitcock -- since then. That streak could end. But whether it does or not, look for a big stable of late picks and undrafted free agents who are bigger but still agile to get a chance to help. Odds are the team sticks with Ugoh and Addai, expecting better health and better play.

Se
condary concern:
Marvin Harrison's production doesn't match his contract and the Colts are going to have to resolve that because they have looming cap issues. It's hard to envision Harrison, who will be 37 by opening day, calmly agreeing to a reduction in pay, so an ugly ending could be ahead for a player who's been a major force.

Harrison often looked out of sync with Peyton Manning during the season, and a year removed from major knee issues, he wasn't running away from many defenders.

Solution: Maybe Indy is actually fortunate it can blame the cap for forcing a move with Harrison. The offense is powered by the precise passing game, and while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez are a high-quality three-pack, the Colts will need to import a smart receiver, likely in the draft, who can make a quick contribution.


Jacksonville Jaguars

 
  Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE
  The Jaguars may seek an upgrade at left tackle over Khalif Barnes.

Primary issue: The Jaguars want to be a physical team that can wear an opponent out, but to do that they need an influx of healthy talent on both their offensive and defensive lines.

Injuries crushed the offensive line in 2008, but Khalif Barnes was healthy. He's just not the right left tackle for a team that seeks to run the ball above all else. The team needs a consistent tone-setter in this spot and also has to decide whether it wants veteran center Brad Meester, a free agent who turns 32 next month, back.

On defense, the team overestimated what it had to replace Marcus Stroud on the inside. Not only was the production from that spot insufficient, but John Henderson was not up to par playing next to those guys. Pairing him with an effective tackle who can help get him back to form is crucial.

Solution: Last year the Jaguars traded up to No. 8 in the first round. This year they earned it themselves. A franchise left tackle would be an ideal get there, and defensive tackle is likely to be addressed relatively early, too.

Secondary concern: Chemistry was a major issue for last year's team, and Jack Del Rio's continued job security likely depends on rebuilding it.

As Del Rio and new GM Gene Smith, a promotion from within, look to reconstruct the roster, they'll have to weigh personalities and leadership traits. Many believe winning breeds chemistry and not vice versa.

It's a complicated formula the team needs to try to figure out.

Solution: Virtually everyone who's added to the team needs to have the right kind of work ethic and personality. Del Rio and Smith can't forge chemistry, but they can provide optimal ingredients.


Tennessee Titans

 
  Kenny Felt/Icon SMI
  The Titans need to bring veteran QB Kerry Collins back into the fold.

Primary issue: If the Titans are going to build on what they had last year, the primary issue is obvious no matter how determined they are to say it's not. The Titans need a threatening, big-play wide receiver to make defenses play honest and to make Tennessee dynamic on offense beyond running back Chris Johnson.

In the playoff loss to Baltimore that ended the team's season, the offense was hardly dangerous once Johnson was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury. Coach Jeff Fisher said the Titans proved that they can be successful with receivers who are at the right spots at the right time if they've got a quarterback like Kerry Collins benefiting from good protection and delivering the ball on schedule.

Acquiring that receiver won't mean much if the quarterback isn't in place, so the Titans have to get Collins back. They said the right things at season's end, but if they don't treat him right Collins means it when he says he'd be content to retire and go hunting.

Solution: Sign Collins to a fair two-year deal that treats him like a starter, then upgrade his weapons with a bold move, trading for Anquan Boldin or trading up to land Michael Crabtree.

Secondary issue: The beauty of the Titans' defense in 2007 was that with a consistent pass rush out of the front four, it rarely needed extra rushers. With a defense that was strong everywhere, former coordinator Jim Schwartz had to cover for no one. His replacement will not have it so good if defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth gets to free agency and jumps to another team.

The Titans have a strong group of linemen, but all of them have benefitted from the attention Haynesworth has demanded.

Solution: Lock up Haynesworth before free agency. Barring that, add a tackle in the draft and get ready to add more blitzes to the repertoire.

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