AFC South: Jacob Lacey

INDIANAPOLIS -- These cornerbacks are playing mostly man to man. The corners on the 2010 Colts played almost exclusively zone.

As I talked to Cassius Vaughn and Vontae Davis Sunday evening in the Indianapolis locker room, I found myself thinking about guys who saw a lot of action at corner for the franchise’s last playoff team -- Justin Tryon and Jacob Lacey.

Vaughn and Darius Butler are like those guys. The team didn't know what it could expect from them. Their roles have expanded because of injuries. They seem to be getting better.

[+] EnlargeCassius Vaughn
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonCassius Vaughn returned a Jake Locker interception three yards for a Colts score.
The coaches have changed, the GMs have changed, many of the players have changed -- yet again the Colts have this plug-and-play feel at cornerback.

Titans quarterback Jake Locker played a role in it for sure, but Vaughn had a giant interception for a touchdown and Butler got Andrew Luck the ball back with another. Davis might have had an end-zone pick but interim coach Bruce Arians said he lost the ball in the lights.

As the starters Sunday, Vaughn and Davis did a lot of good work near the line of scrimmage and in run support, too.

In the second quarter on back-to-back plays, Vaughn tackled Chris Johnson on a short pass to the right for no gain and Davis cut down tight end Jared Cook on the other side for a 1-yard loss on a screen.

“In this league, you have to be a complete corner,” Davis said. “You have big running backs. When the ball gets out to the edges, the only players there to make the tackles there are the corners.”

The Colts may have gotten away with some pass interference, but Pete Morelli and his crew were letting them play in the secondary on both sides. Indy gave up a couple of 46-yard passes to Kenny Britt that Arians said were more about great throws and catches than poor coverages.

In the big picture, the defensive backs did more than enough to contribute to a win.

Vaughn would likely be the nickel at best if Jerraud Powers wasn't on injured reserve.

Davis looks as healthy as he’s been since Colts GM Ryan Grigson dealt a second-rounder to Miami for the veteran corner to solidify the secondary.

We’ll need time to see if that was a good deal or not. This week, it looked good.

“I think Vontae is coming on like gangbusters,” Arians said.

Wrap-up: Titans 44, Lions 41 (OT)

September, 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Titans' 44-41 overtime win over the Detroit Lions at LP Field:

What it means: The Titans do have a pulse, and at times when it gets faint, it’s possible to resuscitate it. It was the sort of win you’d like to think will have long-lasting implications for all the resolve it revealed. They blew a halftime lead of 11 points. They blew a 14-point lead with 1:16 left in the game. But they got a 26-yard field goal from Rob Bironas in overtime and they stuffed a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-1 to win an epic, wild game with more swings than a giant elementary school playground.

What I liked: Big plays. The offense wasn’t finding them, so the Titans turned to special teams and echoed the most famous play in Nashville NFL history. Darius Reynaud tossed a lateral across the field to Tommie Campbell for a 63-yard touchdown punt return, and that gave the Titans a major spark. Reynaud also had a 105-yard kickoff return for a TD, and cornerback Alterraun Verner took a ball out of tight end Brandon Pettigrew’s hands and ran it in for a 72-yard fumble return.

What I also liked: While three of the five big plays came from special teams and defense, the other two were on offense. Tight end Jared Cook had a nice 61-yard catch and run. And wide receiver Nate Washington reached over helpless, dumbfounded cornerback Jacob Lacey to pluck a pass from Jake Locker, and take it 71 yards for a score. (Missed the Cook play in the first version of this. Apologies.)

What I didn’t like: A massive 583 net yards yielded and just one sack in 55 drop-backs by Detroit quarterbacks. Lost fumbles by Locker and Kendall Wright. No TDs in two trips inside the red zone. Two field goal attempts missed wide left by Bironas. The rushing offense still struggling with Chris Johnson taking 14 carries for just 24 yards.

What we’re going to talk about: Was it the best, most compelling and most entertaining game ever played at the Titans’ home stadium, which opened for business in 1999?

What’s next: The Titans play their first AFC South game of the year and see how they measure up to first-place Houston in a Sunday matchup at Reliant Stadium.
Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders covers the AFC South in today’s installment of remaining needs around the league.

Here are snippets with my thoughts.

Houston Texans: Right tackle

“[Rashad] Butler, who was actually [Eric] Winston's replacement at tackle at the University of Miami as well, does have a decent pedigree as a former third-round pick with the Carolina Panthers, but he doesn't have much in the way of NFL experience. He saw some snaps in 6-OL sets in 2010 and got four starts on the left side when Duane Brown was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. While he wasn't a disaster replacing Brown, and may even offer a slight upgrade on Winston in pass protection, it would be a surprise if he brought quite as much to the table in the running game. The only other in-house options are 2011 seventh-rounder Derek Newton and 2012 sixth-round pick Nick Mondek, both of whom are considered projects. Since Houston is also handing over right guard to Antoine Caldwell, a new right side could lead to some awkwardness as the offensive line learns to work together in game conditions.”

My thoughts: This is the biggest question on the roster in my eyes. Butler played four games at left tackle when Brown was suspended in 2010 and was only OK. Supporters say he’s more suited to playing on the right.

Indianapolis Colts: Cornerback

“Indianapolis left the draft with no new cornerbacks and now has a logjam of unproven mediocrity at the position. Last season, Indianapolis finished 26th in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers, 27th against No. 2 wide receivers and 31st against other wide receivers. And the only change in personnel from then to now was the exile of Jacob Lacey, who played poorly enough last year to lose his starting job to the guys who are still in town. Jerraud Powers has always done well by our metrics and will be back on the field after being bothered by a hamstring injury and shutting it down following a dislocated elbow in Week 13... As the NFL continues to shift into a passing league, really good defenses are finding that having three credible cornerbacks is a necessity. The Colts are still stuck on one at this point.”

My thoughts: Something had to suffer based on the depth of needs, and the secondary certainly was not covered the way it needed to be. We're going to see a patchwork group and the Colts could be ready to pounce if and when quality options get cut at the end of camp.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Offensive line

“A strong run-blocking unit … did Blaine Gabbert no favors over the course of his nightmare rookie season. Guy Whimper was one of the worst offensive tackles in the league last season -- FO's J.J. Cooper had a scathing column on his play last year -- and the only obstacle to keep him from starting at tackle again is Eben Britton, whom the Jaguars wanted to turn into a guard last season. Will Rackley, a third-round pick in 2011, won the starting nod at left guard. He showed some flash in the running game, but also allowed 6.5 sacks and looked every bit as lost as Gabbert did in a few games. Eugene Monroe is solid at left tackle but lacks the edge speed to match the best rushers in the NFL. Brad Meester is 35, and not the type of 35 that gets you "wily old vet" mentions like Matt Birk or Jeff Saturday. This is a unit that could have used some more solidification rather than the blind hope that Britton's return from a back injury will heal all.”

My thoughts: A great place to find a guy who could be in the mix in a situation like this is the third round. But the Jaguars preferred a punter. (It’s still funny. I’m sure it’ll wear off eventually. Right?)

Tennessee Titans: Defensive end

“[Kamerion] Wimbley isn't a bad player at all -- in fact, he's picked up 42.5 sacks in six years, which is pretty impressive. However, he's never played exclusively as a 4-3 defensive end, and as our own esteemed Tom Gower noted on his Total Titans blog, four of his seven sacks in 2011 came against woefully overmatched Chargers backup tackle Brandyn Dombrowski. Wimbley was a smart signing in light of the other options, but he's not exactly a sure thing. If the Titans can get some production from either Wimbley or third-year end Derrick Morgan, that would go a long way toward shoring up their 31st-place ranking in Adjusted Sack Rate from 2011.”

My thoughts: It’s possible Wimbley and Morgan with veteran Dave Ball and rookie Scott Solomon could be a good enough four pack. But I don’t like the odds for them all staying healthy and I don’t think it’s good enough.

AFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Houston Texans

Key additions: None.

Key losses: OLB Mario Williams, RG Mike Brisiel, CB Jason Allen, TE Joel Dreessen, RT Eric Winston (cut), ILB DeMeco Ryans (traded), FB Lawrence Vickers (cut), QB Matt Leinart (cut).

Keepers and finance: Not everyone got away. The Texans managed to keep two very important players. They re-signed running back Arian Foster before he reached restricted free agency. And after he'd explored the market some, they struck a deal with unrestricted-free-agent center Chris Myers, a vital piece to a line that lost the two starters on the right side when Winston was cut and Brisiel bolted to Oakland.

Ryans was not a full-time player in the 3-4 defense, and his price tag was high. While Houston takes a $750,000 hit this season, he’s cleared from the books in the future. That will help the team as it tries to make sure players like outside linebacker Connor Barwin and left tackle Duane Brown don’t get away like Williams did.

What’s next: Depth paid off in a big way in 2011 as the Texans managed to win the division and a playoff game despite major personnel losses. At several spots, like on the offensive line and at corner, the draft will serve to replenish the roster with the same kind of insurance.

But the Texans are not without need.

While they are likely to stick with Jacoby Jones as part of the team and like Kevin Walter, a more reliable and dynamic weapon to go with Andre Johnson at receiver is something they acknowledge wanting. A third outside linebacker can reduce the high-snap strain on Barwin and Brooks Reed. While they hope Rashad Butler will replace Winston and Antoine Caldwell will take Brisiel’s spot, adding a guy who can compete for one or both of those spots would be healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Key additions: DE Cory Redding, WR Donnie Avery, C Samson Satele, S Tom Zbikowski, G Mike McGlynn, RT Winston Justice (trade), QB Drew Stanton (trade).

Key losses: QB Peyton Manning (cut), WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jacob Tamme, C Jeff Saturday, TE Dallas Clark (cut), LB Gary Brackett (cut), S Melvin Bullitt (cut), RT Ryan Diem (retired), WR Anthony Gonzalez, QB Dan Orlovsky, CB Jacob Lacey (not tendered), QB Curtis Painter (cut), DE Jamaal Anderson, G Mike Pollak.

So much we don’t know: We know background on coach Chuck Pagano and his coordinators and we know what Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have said. But there will be a degree of mystery well into the season about what they intend to run and with whom. It’s unlikely to be a sweeping transition to a 3-4 defense, as it takes time to overhaul the personnel. But as they play a hybrid defense and move toward a conversion, they’ll need more than they’ve got -- starting with a nose tackle.

On offense, they’ve said they’ll use a fullback. That’s a major departure from the previous regime. And we don’t know if a Donald Brown-Delone Carter duo at fullback will be sufficient to run behind. They need help virtually everywhere after the cap purge and free-agency turnover. Not everything will get addressed as much as they’d like in their first offseason.

What’s next: I expect more role players like Zbikowski and McGlynn, more castoffs like Justice and Stanton and more guys who are presumed finished by a lot of teams, like Avery.

They are all guys who didn’t cost much but who have upside and can help, at least as role players. And if they don’t pan out, it’s hardly a death blow to Indianapolis' major, long-term plans. Money is limited with big dead-money charges and a $19 million cap hit for defensive end Dwight Freeney the team has indicated it's willing to carry.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key additions: WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, QB Chad Henne.

Key losses: DT Leger Douzable (did not tender).

Keeping their own: The Jaguars did well to hold on to players who have been valuable to them. The top of that list belongs to safety Dwight Lowery. They traded with the Jets for him before last season, shifted him full time to safety and got good work from him before he was hurt. It was crucial for the team to stay fixed at the position where it was horrific in 2010 before signing Dawan Landry and adding Lowery.

They also re-signed defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a great effort defensive end who was overextended in terms of playing time last year. He’s no sack-master, but he’s going to bust it on every play, break through sometimes and make the opponent work hard to stay in his way. And with the lack of quality defensive ends who hit the market, the Jaguars did well to keep him from jumping to Chicago.

What’s next: Receiver has to be addressed beyond a change in position coach and the addition of Robinson. If it’s not in the first round, it needs to be early. The franchise is trying to maximize Blaine Gabbert’s chances to be a franchise quarterback, and few would be able to establish themselves with the current cast of wideouts.

The Jaguars are a top pass-rushing end away from being a top-flight defense. Can they find him seventh overall in the draft? They could tab someone like South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, though it’s hard to say he or any rookie would be an immediate solution. Most ends need some time to become impact guys in the league.

The Jaguars could certainly look to add in the secondary free-agent market and when players are set free late in training camp.

Tennessee Titans

Key additions: DE Kamerion Wimbley, RG Steve Hutchinson.

Key losses: CB Cortland Finnegan, DL Jason Jones, WR Donnie Avery.

Sidetracked: Did the Titans miss out on real chances to sign either Scott Wells, who went to St. Louis, or Chris Myers, who stayed in Houston, as their new center because they were focused on chasing quarterback Peyton Manning? Perhaps. But when the owner declares that his executives and coaches need to put the hard sell on an all-time great QB with roots in the team’s state, that’s what you do.

Ideally, the team will still find an alternative to Eugene Amano. If the Titans find a new center to go with Hutchinson, who replaces free agent Jake Scott in the starting lineup, the interior offensive line could see a big improvement. That could have a big bearing on running back Chris Johnson, provided he takes care of his own business.

What’s next: The Titans think Wimbley will excel as a full-time defensive end, but they can’t afford for him to be too full time. He’s a smaller guy who’s played mostly as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and shouldn’t be asked to play every down of every game. That means they still need more help at end, where the only other guys they have right now are Derrick Morgan and Malcolm Sheppard.

Look for them to address depth at corner -- where they feel fine about Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner as the starters, if that’s how it falls -- as well as at receiver. One wild-card spot could be running back. Are they content with Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper as changeups to Johnson, or would they like to add a big back?
We’ll wait until next week to start building the All-AFC South Team, and you’ll have a big chance to offer input there.

This week we’ll pass out hardware for individual awards.

Drum roll please:

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJohnathan Joseph, new to the Texans in 2011, helped revitalize Houston's secondary.
Player of the year: Johnathan Joseph, Texans cornerback. Runner up: Brian Cushing, Texans inside linebacker.

Joseph, Cushing and Antonio Smith were the players I sorted through here, and you can make a case for any of them. While the Texans were a better defense at every level, it was the secondary that had the biggest room for improvement. Joseph’s ability to match up with a team’s best receiver eased the pressure on everyone else in the secondary and helped transform a miserable pass defense into an excellent one. In the Texans’ playoff loss in Baltimore he blanketed Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, rendering him a non-factor.

Offensive player of the year: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars running back. Runner up: Arian Foster, Texans running back.

It’s hard to fathom that Jones-Drew was the NFL rushing champ considering that defenses could regularly key on him without fear of any real threat from the passing offense, which ranked dead last in the NFL. He showed no signs of wearing down and averaged 100 yards a game. It felt like a waste on a five-win team. Foster missed some action early with hamstring issues or he would have likely challenged Jones-Drew in rushing yards. He’s a tremendous combination of power and speed and does excellent work as a pass catcher.

Rookie of the year: J.J. Watt, Texans defensive end. Runner up: Brooks Reed, Texans outside linebacker.

Watt was installed as a starter the moment the Texans drafted him and was an impactful player from his first snap. A relentless player, he was a force against the run and the pass and played beautifully in concert with the rest of the defensive front. His ability to get his hands on balls at the line of scrimmage turned into a monumental interception return for a touchdown in the playoff win over Cincinnati. Reed filled in very well after Mario Williams was lost for the season and may actually help the team decide Williams is expendable.

Best assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Texans defensive coordinator. Runner up, Mel Tucker, Jaguars defensive coordinator.

Phillips was a factor in the personnel decisions that brought Joseph, Danieal Manning, Watt and Reed into the fold for Houston. In his first year as defensive coordinator, he injected a huge dose of confidence into the Texans defenders and wisely drew up schemes that featured guys’ strengths and marked their weaknesses. The sort of turnaround the defense made in one year is practically unheard of. In Jacksonville, Tucker was given a huge boost with new personnel, but as he took over play-calling from Jack Del Rio, he excelled.

Best position coach: Dave Ragone, Titans receivers coach. Runner up, Vance Joseph, Texans secondary coach.

Ragone had no experience working with receivers coming into this job, but did fantastic work. He deserves a great deal of credit for the vast improvement and maturation of Nate Washington and the emergence of Damian Williams as a threat and Lavelle Hawkins as a guy who did some good things with the ball in his hands. In his first season with the Texans, Joseph helped some guys regain confidence while overseeing a successful move of Glover Quin from corner to strong safety.

Executive of the year: Rick Smith, Texans general manager.

He had lots of help, but completely nailed free agency, signing Joseph and Manning rather than Nnamdi Asomugha. And the top of the draft was fantastic, with Watt and Reed. As Houston suffered injuries at running back, receiver, linebacker and even punter, the Texans showed good depth and an ability to fill in holes with quality outsiders.

Best unit: Texans offensive line. Runner up: Texans linebackers.

Led by center Chris Myers, who may be the division’s most unsung player, Houston’s offensive line blocked consistently well for the run game and protected three different quarterbacks well. Left tackle Duane Brown and right tackle Eric Winston both earned mentions on various All-Pro teams. Antoine Caldwell filled in nicely when Mike Brisiel missed time at right guard. The Texans linebackers, even without Mario Williams, did spectacular, work stuffing the run and swarming quarterbacks all season long.

Worst unit: Jaguars receivers. Runner up: Colts cornerbacks.

Mike Thomas might be a No. 2 receiver and can certainly be a good No. 3, though his play in 2011 dropped off after he got a contract extension. But Jason Hill, who started as the No. 2 guy, wound up getting cut and guys like Jarett Dillard, rookie Cecil Shorts, Chastin West and Kassim Osgood did little to show they were NFL-caliber guys. Blaine Gabbert suffered the consequences. The Colts were insufficiently stocked at corner, though Jacob Lacey bounced back well late in the season after he was benched.

Most improved: Nate Washington, Titans receiver. Runner up: Connor Barwin, Texans outside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Timothy T. Ludwig/US PresswireFollowing a big contract signing prior to the season, Titans RB Chris Johnson failed to play up to the high expectations.
Washington’s maturation was remarkable. An excitable guy really calmed down and settled in working under offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Ragone and with Matt Hasselbeck. Washington figured to be better with those guys while working as the No. 2 behind Kenny Britt, but Britt was lost for the season early on and Washington wound up with a 1,000-yard season and seven touchdowns. I give him the nod because I didn’t believe he had untapped upside. That was not the case with Barwin, who the Texans have expected to be a pass-rushing force since they drafted him in 2009.

Most disappointing: Chris Johnson, Titans running back. Runner up: Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars tight end.

I don’t care what sort of defenses are offered up for Johnson. He simply did not run as hard after coming out of a holdout with a giant new contract. There were other issues, but too often he appeared to lack fire and desire. In the rare instances he wound up in a one-on-one situation he was hardly the threat he’s been in the past. If he doesn’t bounce back in 2012, the contract will turn out to be disastrous. Lewis was supposed to be transformed by his MMA training during the lockout. If it impacted him, it made him worse. Expecting another 10 touchdowns was unreasonable. Producing none was unacceptable.

Best position revamp: TIE, Jaguars safeties and Texans safeties.

Both teams were terrible at the position a year ago and despite a draft class that was incredibly thin, reshaped the spot with great results. The Texans shifted Quin from cornerback and he was very solid alongside free-agent addition Manning. The Jaguars signed Dawan Landry from Baltimore and traded for Dwight Lowery, shifting a guy who’d played mostly corner to play with Landry. Applause to both teams for fine work addressing a trouble position.

Surprise of the year: T.J. Yates, Texans quarterback.

The finish in the playoff loss to Baltimore was a big disappointment. But Yates took over a good team when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down in quick succession and played beyond what could reasonably be expected from a fifth-round rookie quarterback.

Colt of the year: Pat Angerer, middle linebacker.

As Indianapolis was not mentioned here at all, we create this category for the Colts. Angerer showed himself to be a quality starter who has to be in the lineup going forward. That may mean the end of Gary Brackett, the veteran middle linebacker who was hurt in Week 1 and missed the season. Angerer is a rangy, instinctive player who’s sure to impress new general manager Ryan Grigson.
Reggie WayneBrian Spurlock/US PresswireReggie Wayne caught eight passes for 106 yards and the game-winning score with 19 seconds left.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s inexplicable, really.

Lose 13 in a row and look terrible while doing so. Then, follow it up with two wins in five days.

What the Colts have done is write just the sort of improbable storyline that makes us love the league.

Playing as they so often have with Peyton Manning engineering end-of-game magic, Indianapolis forged a penalty-aided 12-play, 78-yard touchdown drive in just 1 minute, 37 seconds that resulted in a 19-16 win over the Texans. The new AFC South champions from Houston had their best chance ever to win in this city, and they had a lead until the clock showed 19 seconds.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the way the men on this team played,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “You start out spotting them seven points, they’re the AFC South champions, they’ve got everything to play for and people would think we’ve got nothing. But the men on this team just kept fighting. We knew if we kept it close we’d have a chance late.”

Saturday, defensive end Robert Mathis and receiver Reggie Wayne played what could have been their last game as Colts in Indianapolis. Mathis had two sacks, forcing and recovering a fumble on one. And Wayne pulled in eight passes for 106 yards, including the 1-yard touchdown pass from Dan Orlovsky that won it.

It leaves Houston, 0-10 on the road against the Colts, in need of a good bit of help to fare better than the third seed in the AFC playoffs.

[+] EnlargeReggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday
Brian Spurlock/US Presswire"I couldn't be prouder of the way the men on this team played," center Jeff Saturday, left, said of Reggie Wayne and his Colts teammates.
“We get some time here to regroup and go back home,” Texans tight end Owen Daniels said. “One more game left here and hopefully we can get some momentum back. It’s not a good feeling. There were a lot of opportunities for us to seal the game up offensively.”

“It’s a loss,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “It’s a very, very tough loss. But at the end of the day, we’re still in the playoffs. We’re still going to make a very, very strong push in the playoffs. It’s tough. We’re going to learn from it. And then we’re going to move forward. It’s all we can do.”

The result may scramble the top of April’s draft order, and could have implications around the league for more than a decade if it helps St. Louis or Minnesota gain the first overall pick -- expected to be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts sit at 2-13, while the Rams and Vikings are at 2-12.

Before the game, owner Jim Irsay said on the NFL Network that provided Manning is healthy, he will be playing for the Colts in 2012. The team will also not hesitate to select a great young quarterback in the draft, Irsay said.

If they fall out of the first pick and lose their chance at Luck, the Colts will likely also miss out on Matt Barkley, who announced Thursday he’ll play his senior year at USC.

Saturday said he was glad to know Irsay said Manning would be in Indianapolis, health willing. Beyond that, all the speculation will come from beyond the Colts’ locker room.

“I ain’t worried a bit about the draft or any of it,” Saturday said. “I’ll let the Polians worry about that, that’s their job. My job is to win football games, that’s all I care about and that’s all they tell us to care about. I’ve never heard one person in this organization ever talk about what our draft is going to be the next year. Those guys plan for it, they’re going to do their best to get the best players in here. You’ll see what you get.”

Colts vice chairman Bill Polian talked in the last week about needing an infusion of young playmakers.

In a second consecutive game, this defense looked like it already has some of them.

Though the Colts allowed Arian Foster to romp for 158 rushing yards on 23 carries, including four runs of 18 yards or more, they did well bottling a lot of other things up. The Texans converted only 1 of 10 third downs, when just one more might have iced the game or positioned them to put it out of reach.

That one conversion was a fluke, too. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates threw behind intended receiver Kevin Walter, who reached back for it but couldn’t pull it in. It bounced off safety Antoine Bethea’s back or shoulder not once, but twice, before Jacoby Jones plucked it for a 5-yard gain with less than 3 minutes remaining.

As it did in its 27-13 win over Tennessee, Indianapolis’ defense benefitted from overly conservative play-calling. The Colts saw a division opponent wary of their pass rush. Houston tried to win by playing it safe, and the Colts blew up that plan.

“The whole season we’ve kept on fighting, there was never a sense of giving up or a sense of backing down,” cornerback Jacob Lacey said. “We’ve rallied around each other.”

Big changes are still ahead, even if the Colts go to Jacksonville and win another game on New Year’s Day. With Christmas weekend free thanks to the schedule-makers, they can savor this one before thinking about that one and all that’s beyond it.

“I hope it’s not, but you never know,” Saturday said about the possibility it was his last game as with the Colts at home. “What a great night tonight with those guys. You don’t get many like this. So I’m treasuring it.”

Rebounding Lacey was big piece for Colts

December, 19, 2011
Jacob Lacey had fallen so far out of favor that he was inactive for the Indianapolis Colts' eighth game after starting the first seven.

The Colts had decided they would be OK without veteran corner Kelvin Hayden, who was cut before the season in a cash-saving move. Then they cut Justin Tryon after three games.

Lacey's struggles made those decisions look very questionable.

But Lacey has played much better since the team gave him back a big role because of injuries.

Sunday he muscled a pass away from Chris Johnson and took it 32 yards to the end zone for a crucial touchdown in the Colts’ win over the Tennessee Titans. He also had 12 tackles and another pass defensed.

“Lacey had an excellent day out there again,” coach Jim Caldwell said.

Lacey is a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy who’s basically working as the No. 1 corner now with Jerraud Powers and Terrence Johnson on IR. His game really slipped, but a change in coordinator from Larry Coyer to Mike Murphy appears to have helped him rebound.

“Team-wise and personally, being in the position we were in has been tough on us, but we never strayed away from each other or gave up on anybody or anything like that,” Lacey said. “It felt good to come out here and show how much we’ve jelled as a unit.

“I put my nose to the grindstone and I used my time at practice to improve myself going against Pierre Garcon every day, just battling, coming out and trying to work on everything I needed to work on.”

Colts baffle Titans, relish first win

December, 18, 2011
Jim CaldwellAP Photo/Darron CummingsThe Colts avoided a winless season by taking down the Tennessee Titans with strong defense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts were excited, but not overly so. They smiled and patted each other on the back, but hardly lit victory cigars.

They didn’t seem to struggle with finding just the right tone in enjoying their first win of the season Sunday while keeping it in context too.

After toppling the Tennessee Titans 27-13, they know a 1-13 record is hardly something to be proud about when you are a franchise used to winning the AFC South. But it sure tops 0-14.

They were clearly pleased to know a bottoming-out season minus a contribution from Peyton Manning wouldn’t take them so far as just the second winless mark since the league started playing a 16-game regular season in 1978.

“It’s a great relief,” defensive end Robert Mathis said. “It just feels good to get a victory.”

“Nobody wants to go 0-16,” receiver Reggie Wayne said. “It was good for us to go out and get a win. It was great for us to win at home. Hopefully it’s contagious. Hopefully we can win these next two games which are division opponents and we’ll go out and have some good drinks at the end of the year and hope for a better one next year.”

The defense keyed the victory. It took the ball away from Tennessee three times, including a Jacob Lacey interception stolen from Chris Johnson that was returned 32 yards for a touchdown that made it 17-6. The Titans’ last five possessions from there ended like this: punt, fumble, interception, touchdown and turned over on downs.

The Titans certainly made a mighty contribution to the result. Starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said one big theme during the week was that a sack and a fumble caused by Dwight Freeney or Mathis would be one way to lose. So the game plan called for a lot of quick throws to make sure the ball was out of the quarterback’s hand early.

That was misguided. Most opponents this season diffused the pass rushing duo in a much more effective way: By taking a lead that made the Colts have to deal with the run rather than key on the pass, by forcing a struggling offense to try to find big plays to catch up and inevitably make mistakes.

The Colts came into the game as just the second team in league history to go eight full games without holding a lead. The Titans allowed them to move ahead 3-0 in the first quarter and 10-6 in the third. From there, Indianapolis built with a confidence rarely shown this season.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said the Colts were “making us throw the ball underneath.”

His team is hardly world beaters, but it’s been consistently better than the Colts this season and beat them 27-10 in Nashville on Oct. 30. A team with playoff possibilities against a winless one shouldn’t be dictated to. It should be dictating.

Instead, even though they weren’t necessarily big leads, the Colts thrived off of being ahead.

“You don’t have to gamble nearly as much, you don’t have to get into too many man coverage situations,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “You can make them just kind of dump the ball and drop it underneath and try to break down and tackle in bounds and keep that clock running.”

I think Colts vice chairman Bill Polian overstated when he said in the three weeks since defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired and replaced by linebacker coach Mike Murphy that Murphy and the defensive staff “got this team flying again.”

But the defensive tackles got a consistent push and the coverage of receivers and tight ends by an injury-depleted secondary was generally tight.

After it was over, the Titans talked of being lifeless from the start and the Colts talked of having some bounce.

“I never would have expected us to come out and look like they were the team that was going to the playoffs and we were the team that was 0-13,” Munchak said. “That can’t be.”

Now Munchak faces a decision on whether to stick with Hasselbeck or turn to rookie Jake Locker while the Colts turn their attention to their two other division opponents.

Wayne said it was a big deal not to get swept in the season series by Tennessee. The Colts have already lost to Houston and Jacksonville as well, and finish the season with rematches.

Can they find a couple more wins to savor? Can they find them with just 82 passing yards the way they found this one?

“It’s been a year since we’ve won,” Freeney said, exaggerating slightly. The Colts last won on Jan. 2.

“Regardless of whether it’s one or 10 or whatever, whenever you can win in this league, it means a lot. You definitely can’t take it for granted. This year you’re really sure you can’t.”

Rapid Reaction: Colts 27, Titans 13

December, 18, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Thoughts on the Colts’ 27-13 win over the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: A happy day in Indy. The 2011 Colts won’t be joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in NFL annals as an 0-16 team. They played tight and efficient defense, rushed the passer well while not allowing big plays, took the ball away three times and ran the ball with some consistency en route to their first win. It was the first NFL win for Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who was also on that Lions team. The result effectively ended the Titans’ playoff hopes. Now 7-7 they’d need a ton of help to earn the last wild-card spot at 9-7.

What I liked -- Colts: Big plays on defense. Maligned cornerback Jacob Lacey took a pass away from Chris Johnson and returned it 32 yards for a score. Pat Angerer killed the Titans when they looked to be getting things going in the fourth quarter, stripping Jared Cook for a fumble which was recovered by Chris Rucker. Angerer also picked off Matt Hasselbeck in the end zone on a deep try for Nate Washington thrown as the quarterback got hit. The Colts got a consistently good push up front and matched it with tight coverage, allowing the Titans few big chunks. Outside of an awkward trip as he backed out from center and handed off, Orlovsky played with composure and decisiveness. The defense probably tackled as well as it has all season -- even on Chris Johnson’s late 35-yard run, Rucker caught him and pulled him down from behind.

What I didn’t like -- Titans: Yes, Matt Hasselbeck was under consistent pressure. But a combination of play calling by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and decision-making by Hasselbeck was far too conservative. (The deep shot to Washington that was picked was too little, too late.) Tennessee seemed hell-bent on not taking shots that would stretch out the Colts' defense, checking down and throwing short passes that featured Johnson far too often. Why, when so many teams have made so many big plays against Indy this season, were the Titans so willing to settle for short stuff?

Second-guess city: I backed the Titans' decision to start and stick with Hasselbeck into the fourth quarter. It’s easy to second-guess now. But maybe Jake Locker’s mobility would have made a difference and opened things up. A veteran quarterback typically gets the benefit of the doubt, but given Hasselbeck’s poor performance and the result, Mike Munchak will have to expound on his rationale for going the direction he did.

What I wonder: How much will the Colts allow themselves to celebrate and enjoy this one when, as cathartic as it must be, it gets them to 1-13?

What’s next: The Colts have a quick turn and host division-leading Houston on Thursday night. The Texans beat the Colts on opening day. The Titans host Jacksonville on Christmas Eve. The Jaguars beat the Titans on opening day.

The AFC South's top penalty perpetrators

December, 15, 2011
An overdue check in on the AFC South’s primary penalty offenders, courtesy of Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats and Info.

Some notes:
  • Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson leads the division with 99 penalty yards on five penalties (four accepted), highlighted by pass interference penalties of 41 and 30 yards.
  • Smith has four offsides, two personal fouls, two roughing the passer and one neutral zone infraction.
  • Lacey has six separate penalty types -- three pass interference, an offside, a face mask, a fair catch interference, a holding and a running into the kicker. That’s impressive diversity!
  • Mike Brisiel is the only player on the list with no declined penalties -- five false starts, two holding and one face mask.

McCourty won't be in Titans' secondary

December, 11, 2011
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Greetings from LP Field, where the Titans will try to slow the Saints today minus starting cornerback Jason McCourty.

McCourty’s recovering from a concussion suffered last week in the win over Buffalo.

Alterraun Verner has been part of the nickel package and will start. That’s not a huge drop off. But now undrafted rookie Chris Hawkins from LSU will come in as an outside corner in nickel.

If I’m the Saints I look to test Hawkins early and often.

New Orleans is without defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. Tim Johnson will start in his place.

A note from the three other teams of the AFC South:
The full list from Saints-Titans.


Roster moves in Indy and Jacksonville

December, 5, 2011
We've got roster news in Indianapolis and Jacksonville.

The Colts’ pass defense, miserable as it’s been, is about to get worse.

The team’s top cornerback, Jerraud Powers, and another corner who’s played a lot, Terrence Johnson, were put on injured reserve today after suffering injuries in the loss to New England.

Jacob Lacey, Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker figure to be the top three players at the position going forward.

Linebacker Zac Diles, cut by Tampa Bay, was claimed off waivers by Indy.

In Jacksonville, the Jaguars claimed and were awarded receiver Taylor Price from New England. The third-rounder was a bit of a surprising release by the Patriots.

It appears the Jaguars won’t have to clear roster space for Price until tomorrow.

Colts offense scrambled by injuries

October, 30, 2011
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After crossing off inactives and drawing lines to move guys around and up the depth chart, my flip card for the Colts' offense looks silly.

Ryan Diem, Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz all didn’t travel.

So the line will look like this:

LT Jeff Linkenbach, LG Seth Olsen, C Jeff Saturday, RG Mike Tepper, RT Quinn Ojinnaka.

Three of those players -- Olsen, Tepper and Ojinnaka – were not on the Colts' opening day roster.

The group will start out blocking for running back Delone Carter, who is starting ahead of the injured Joseph Addai, who is dressed.

On defense, cornerback Jacob Lacey is a scratch and will be replaced by Kevin Thomas.

The Titans suffer one big lineup loss. Their primary blocking tight end, Craig Stevens, is out with a rib injury and Daniel Graham will start in his place.

The full lists…


Breaking down Colts as they break down

October, 27, 2011
Peyton ManningDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Colts were clearly ill-prepared for life without star quarterback Peyton Manning.
It’s ugly in Indianapolis.

At 0-7, the Colts are talking about sticking together, improving and giving themselves a chance to win.

But as they prepare for a trip to Nashville for a Sunday meeting with the Titans at LP Field, they are a severely broken team. Where they would be with Peyton Manning is an interesting hypothetical question, but we’re dealing with realities. And those realities are the sort that will test the franchise’s stitching -- seamwork that might not hold together when this is all over.

Who’s at fault? Everyone’s got a hand in it, but let’s look at the Colts from a couple of angles.

A big cover-up: It’s not a secret that Manning has helped cover up a lot of flaws and allowed the franchise to under-address certain areas.

The Colts during the Manning era have never been much concerned with size, always valuing speed and instincts more. They’ve never worried about stocking special teams with any veteran backups, in part because they spend their money on stars or adding a high-quality return man. They’ve settled for being below average running the ball. And they’ve won despite a general inability to stop the run.

Without their four-time MVP running the offense, all those things are magnified in ways they’ve never been before.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re built to have Manning at the controls, and he’s been there all the time from the very beginning in 1998 until opening day this season.

There are maybe two teams and markets in the league that would not trade for what the Colts have done since 1999. Twelve consecutive playoff seasons followed by one complete dud? Where do I sign up for that?

[+] EnlargeJacob Lacey
Michael Hickey/US PresswirePersonnel decisions by the Colts put cornerback Jacob Lacey, 27, in a prominent role in a secondary that has struggled this season.
Construct questions: That said, regardless of a serious neck surgery to the star quarterback, what exactly was the plan in the secondary? Is an evaluation that leaves Jacob Lacey, Terrence Johnson, Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker as cornerbacks Nos. 2 through 5 good enough? Absolutely not.

The Colts get credit for adding a couple of outside veterans this season -- linebacker Ernie Sims, and defensive ends Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton. But the drafting has dropped off.

Set aside the most recent class, as it’s too early to judge.

The Colts drafted 41 players from 2005 through 2010. I count one star, safety Antoine Bethea, and two guys who can become stars, linebacker Pat Angerer and receiver Austin Collie (if he’s working with Manning). Running back Joseph Addai is a good fit who does more than people think. And receiver Pierre Garcon and cornerback Jerraud Powers have been pretty solid starters.

Sure, the Colts drafted higher in the five years before. Still, those classes produced five guys who rank among the best players of their generation at their positions: tight end Dallas Clark, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, safety Bob Sanders, and receiver Reggie Wayne. The next tier provided steady starters on the offensive line (Jake Scott, Ryan Diem) and at linebacker (David Thornton).

That list is more than a third of a starting team, a big-time core. As those guys age or disappear, I'm not seeing a core in waiting.

Colts president-turned-vice chairman Bill Polian said recently on his radio show that they needed to have done better recently, particularly at defensive tackle and cornerback.

And there is a domino effect to the problem. Find Tarik Glenn’s ultimate replacement at left tackle in 2007, and you don’t need to use your top pick in 2011 on Anthony Castonzo. Hit on Donald Brown in the first round in 2009, and Delone Carter might not be necessary in the fourth round in 2011.

The Polians: Bill Polian has been pulling back and yielding responsibility to his son, GM Chris Polian. (Chris politely declined to be interviewed for this story.)

We don’t yet have much tape on Chris Polian, so to speak. Bill Polian is a good talent evaluator who has had success in three NFL stops and has done well to build a team with which Manning has won. But Bill Polian also has overseen those recent draft drop-offs.

His strong-willed personality is part of what has made him good at his job, and his big-picture assessment of important league issues is as intelligent as anyone’s. He’s got clout and influence that extend beyond Indianapolis.

Stylistically, he’s a stubborn and demanding boss. There are indications from within that, without the steady stream of personnel hits he provided earlier in his tenure, some inside the building are tiring of the way things are run.

Bill Polian recently talked about how Curtis Painter's play vindicates the team for having faith in him, but failed to mention that faith was so strong that the team signed Kerry Collins to a $4 million contract shortly before the season started and handed him the starting job.

I suspect Bill Polian has the backing of owner Jim Irsay for as long as he wants it. That would ensure safety for Chris Polian, too.

Bill Polian made the Manning-over-Ryan Leaf call in 1998. Because of the way Leaf busted, people forget that was a coin flip at the time, that Leaf was regarded as a big-time prospect just as much as Manning was. Polian called it correctly, built a team that’s been to two Super Bowls and won one, got a new stadium built, and greatly enhanced the value of Irsay’s franchise.

Cryptic messages: Further complicating things is Irsay, who clearly gets a kick out of being the center of NFL attention in the Twitter-verse but has undermined some of his people with it.

He announced the team added Collins while coach Jim Caldwell was conducting his daily news conference. It did Caldwell no favors, as he appeared completely out of the loop.

Most recently, following the 62-7 loss in New Orleans on Sunday night, Irsay provided this gem:
“Titanic collapse, apologies 2 all ColtsNation...problems identifiable;solutions in progress but complex in nature/ better days will rise again”

A day later, he added:
"Just because you perceive problems on the horizon,and you possess solutions..doesn't mean they are avoidable and implementation is instant"

Solutions in progress, but complex in nature. That sounds to me like what would be written in big silver letters on the lobby wall of a consulting company on a TV show. Or a clever, but far-too-long name for a band.

It also sounds like change is going to come.

Coaching questions: While Bill Polian recently said that adding Jim Tressel to the staff as a replay consultant was Caldwell’s idea, it’s a weird-looking move that’s made some of us wonder whether a bigger role awaits the former Ohio State coach.

Caldwell does a nice job managing personalities, looking at things philosophically and staying on message. I believe he’s a good teacher, and his patient, quiet style is generally healthy for a team with a good share of veteran stars.

But he has blind spots, too, and is hardly a strategy master. There are bound to be significant changes at the conclusion of what’s sure to be a dreadful season, and he’ll be at the front of the line.

If he does the best job we can remember at holding a terrible, ineffective team together, is that enough? I’d guess not.

Injuries: This team gets hurt too much. There is a huge element of bad luck to it, of course. But is there something bigger at work as well?

Last season as quality players went down, Manning helped some role players such as tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White emerge. This season, guys such as linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt were lost for the season early, and there's been a revolving door on the offensive line because of injuries.

The Colts are constantly testing their depth and shuffling the back end of their roster. There is only so much shuffling a depth chart can handle.

I believe they need to attempt some change that might have a positive effect on their overall health -- whether it be adopting new training philosophies, altering how they evaluate prospects or changing personnel philosophies.

It's easy to ask them to figure out why they tend to suffer so many injuries, and it's hard to find an answer. But some sort of shift is due, even as we know it comes with no guarantee of better health.

When the current approach is failing, it's OK to try something else. It's not admitting some sort of failure; it's merely part of a necessary process of evaluating and revising operations.

Suck for Luck: Given a chance to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, I think the Colts would. Bill Polian can give Chris Polian the guy expected to be the NFL's next great quarterback, and Chris Polian's legacy would be built on a fantastic cornerstone.

But there is no losing on purpose to get in position for Luck. You think Wayne or Mathis is interested in such a master plan?

Said veteran center and team tone-setter Jeff Saturday: “I'll steal a Robert Mathis quote: 'I ain't sucking for anybody.'”
We are overdue to check in on penalties in the AFC South, so here’s an account from ESPN Stats and Info on the primary offenders:

  • Lacey has three pass interferences, an offensive holding, a face mask and a running into the kicker. If a cornerback is beat, it’s usually better for him to draw a flag then let a guy go. But I’d like him not to be in that position very often.
  • All five of Meester’s penalties are holding, but four have been declined. Declined penalties get guys off the hook in a lot of ways but shouldn’t. They are still committing the foul, it’s just the context that is helping them.
  • Smith had two offside, a face mask, an illegal use of hands and an unnecessary roughness penalties. A nice smorgasbord of infractions.