AFC South: Jarvis Jones

Colts vs. Steelers preview

October, 24, 2014

The streaking Indianapolis Colts will try to win their sixth game in a row on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slowing down quarterback Andrew Luck will be the Steelers' priority, and they have to find a way to minimize his impact or score enough to keep pace with the 5-2 Colts. Beating Indianapolis would give Pittsburgh a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season as well as a signature win.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 4:25 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

Brown: Mike, the Steelers’ passing game has been torched by the likes of Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer this season. The Steelers' pass rush has been average, and they are suspect in the secondary. That is not a good formula for stopping Luck. What is the best way to contain him, if that is possible?

Wells: Blitzing Luck is the best way, but that appears to be a problem for the Steelers. Luck has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around this season. He is not just focusing on receivers Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton. Luck had back-to-back games where he completed passes to nine different receivers this season. His biggest problem, though, is interceptions: He is tied for third in the league in that category with seven. The Colts have survived Luck’s miscues so far, but they won’t be as fortunate once they get to the playoffs and face teams that can make them pay for their mistakes.

The Steelers are a tough team to figure out. One week they get blown out by Cleveland, and then they come back and use an incredible performance in the second quarter to beat Houston. What is Pittsburgh’s identity?

Brown: Mike, I can’t figure out this team quarter to quarter, much less game to game. The defense certainly isn’t the one that people are accustomed to seeing. There is no intimidation factor, no swagger, and the Steelers are really just trying to get by defensively as they retool a unit that is in transition. The Steelers have the potential to forge a personality as a dynamic offensive team, as they have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, the second-leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell and, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have moved the ball this season, but they have too often bogged down in the red zone. Maybe scoring three touchdowns in the last three minutes of the second quarter Monday night against the Texans will serve as a springboard for the offense. It had better put up a lot of points against the Colts if the Steelers are to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

I normally don’t associate the Colts with the kind of defense they played in absolutely stifling the Bengals on Sunday. Is Indianapolis' defense underrated?

Wells: It is very underrated. I didn’t think this defense had a chance once linebacker Robert Mathis, last season’s sack leader, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The unit appeared to be headed for a rough season after it had only one sack over the first two games. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has taken a hold-nothing-back approach with his defense. With two cornerbacks who can blanket receivers, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, Manusky is loading the box and constantly blitzing. That is why the Colts have 20 sacks and nine turnovers during their five-game winning streak. They have also held their past four opponents to 4-of-41 on third down. People might not have respected the Colts' defense before, but now teams have to take notice.

The Steelers have a history of being a good defensive team. They are 15th in the league in yards allowed a game. Are they on the decline defensively?

Brown: That is a great question. The Steelers have to hope it doesn’t get any worse defensively, or they could be in trouble. They have some promising young players to build around in rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Steelers have serious questions at outside linebacker, especially if 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones doesn’t develop into a pass-rushing force. Cornerback is also an issue, a position at which the organization has not drafted well or neglected, depending on your vantage point. Cortez Allen is the Steelers’ best young cornerback, and he recently lost his starting job to Brice McCain. Allen has the physical ability to develop into a No. 1 cornerback, but the 2011 fourth-round pick has to become more consistent. It could get worse before it gets better on defense, given some of the holes that the Steelers have tried to spackle over by moves such as coaxing veteran outside linebacker James Harrison out of retirement.

The Colts seem like they have something going with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. Richardson seems to be playing much better than he did last season. Is part of the reason that Bradshaw has eased the pressure on Richardson to carry the Colts' ground game?

Wells: Richardson might never live up to the expectations as being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, but he is running better than he did last season, when he eventually was demoted. He is running with more confidence and making better decisions. Having Bradshaw has been a blessing for Richardson because he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the load in the backfield. Neither player has a problem sharing the work, and it helps that Bradshaw is familiar with sharing the load in the backfield. He went through it while with the New York Giants.

Brown looks like he could surpass the 1,499 receiving yards he had last season. What makes him so successful, and what type of challenges will he present to the Colts’ secondary?

Brown: I thought Brown would have a really tough time matching his production in 2013, when the fifth-year veteran set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season. He has been even better this season and has scored five touchdowns after reaching the end zone eight times in 2013. Brown is an excellent route-runner, makes tough catches in traffic and is dazzling after the catch. The Colts will have to limit the damage Brown does after the catch, and I would imagine they will do everything they can to take him out of the game. But no team has succeeded in doing that, even though a reliable complement opposite Brown has yet to emerge.

Troy Polamalu and Jake Locker Getty ImagesJake Locker will have to face a fresh Troy Polamalu and one of the league's top defenses.
Pittsburgh is a tough place to play. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't often stay down long. The Tennessee Titans will bring a lot of unknowns to Heinz Field.

It’s an intriguing opening day matchup for two teams looking to bounce back from seasons that didn’t meet standards and fell short of expectations. Steelers' blogger Scott Brown joins me for his first edition of Double Coverage, and I know he’ll understand if we skip the pleasantries and dive right in.

The Titans' rebuild is centered around their offensive line. They’ll be way more physical with a new interior of Andy Levitre, Rob Turner and Chance Warmack.

Scott, I know the offensive line has been an issue in Pittsburgh, too. What’s the status of things there, and how much better can we expect the Steelers to be up front?

Scott Brown: Paul, that is one of the biggest questions facing the Steelers. The offensive line is one of the youngest and most inexperienced the Steelers have assembled in decades. But the group is athletic and has plenty of what coach Mike Tomlin likes to call "pedigree."

Two of the starters are first-round draft picks. Two others are second-round selections. The Steelers have clearly made a big investment in the offensive line, and they need a major return on that investment for this team to return to the playoffs.

I think the interior of the line with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster has a chance to be really good. I'm not as sold on tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, who will protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.

The Titans, I'm sure, will test that line with plenty of blitzes, as the first-team offensive line struggled with pass-blocking in the preseason.

Speaking of blitzes, Titans quarterback Jake Locker will see his share with the ageless wonder Dick LeBeau still calling defenses in Pittsburgh.

How is Locker progressing, and is he the long-term answer at quarterback in Tennessee?

Paul Kuharsky: The verdict on whether Locker is the guy for the long haul won’t come until after we see this season.

He steadily improved in camp and the preseason and has reason to feel good about the state of things. I don’t think he’s going to have many games in his career in which he throws for 300 yards, but the Titans aren’t built to ask that of him. They’ll get him on the move to make simple throws and decisions, especially early, when he often needs to settle down and find a rhythm.

That line will give him time and be far better at creating space for Chris Johnson and newcomer Shonn Greene. If the Titans run effectively -- and the preseason suggested that’s one thing they are definitely good at -- they can build play-action off that and Locker will be in a perfect setting to succeed.

The two big questions are about his accuracy and how he will react to new, unforeseen circumstances. You know, the kind of stuff Lebeau has designed for this game especially for him.

Does LeBeau have the pieces to do the sort of things to confuse a young quarterback?

Brown: He has one of the most valuable pieces of all in Troy Polamalu. The dynamic strong safety allows LeBeau to do so much because he plays all over the field and opposing quarterbacks don't know where he is going to be from snap to snap.

Polamalu missed nine games last season because of a recurring calf injury, but he looked like his old self in training camp and the preseason. In that sense, the timing isn't good for the Titans to play the Steelers because Polamalu is at full strength. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley also seems poised to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which he registered just four sacks.

With those two and other players such as inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, LeBeau won't hold back -- particularly against a relatively inexperienced quarterback who is still finding his way in the NFL.

Paul, the Steelers have never lost at Heinz Field in September under Tomlin. My question for you is what will it take for the Titans to pull off the upset on Sunday?

Kuharsky: I think it’s possible. They’d have to show poise, withstand the bad moments, minimize mistakes. You know the drill.

This is a team that has been run on by lesser running backs in the recent past, so it can’t take Isaac Redman lightly, and we’ll find out fast if Sammie Hill and Ropati Pitoitua are going to help answer the run-defense deficiencies.

The Titans must get Roethlisberger to the ground when they have the chance. After an offseason talking of press coverage, they haven’t changed at all at cornerback, and I imagine Roethlisberger will find things to attack. He knows Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard from his time in Baltimore. I won’t be surprised if the Steelers plot to get Pollard in coverage situations they feel they can exploit.

The other big question here, the elephant in the room: Your first game for You ready?

Brown: To help myself to some Tomlinisms: This is where the rubber meets the road, but this is not my first rodeo. I believe I have sharpened my pen (does that still apply in the world?) for battle, but I will have to pay attention to detail. Ultimately, it comes down to making plays (or deadline in this case) inside stadiums with the lights on (yes, I know it is a 1 p.m. start, but gray days in Pittsburgh are as noteworthy as grass on a golf course). Such is life in the National Football League (and, and I embrace the challenge.

Video: Day 3 NFL combine takeaways

February, 23, 2013

Paul Kuharsky, Kevin Seifert and Bill Williamson deliver the top stories from day 3 of the 2013 NFL combine.
Mel Kiper’s summer audits Insider of the AFC South give us a lot to consider. Here’s a sampling with some of my thoughts.

Houston Texans

Kiper: “… (The) zone-blocking scheme the Texans have made the centerpiece of this offense -- so much emanates from them executing well here -- keeping (Chris) Myers around means a lot. No, he wasn't "added" per se, but he will add to the stability. If this team can't run the ball, the play-action, easy-read system it runs takes a big hit, so retaining Myers might be one of the more underrated moves in the division …

“Last year, Brooks Reed stepped in for the injured Mario Williams and showed some things, but (Whitney) Mercilus has even more talent and athleticism. Elsewhere, DeVier Posey could go either way as a third-round pick, but he can get down the field and make plays. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him get first-team reps. Keshawn Martin is another receiver to watch. He simply knows how to create space.”

“Is the offense actually showing signs of cracking just as the defense really comes into its own? My guess is teams will stack hard this year against the run and show less fear of the play-action. It'll be up to (Matt) Schaub and personnel to prove they can still be dangerous.”

Next year's help, now: Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington St.

Kuharsky: The question about the offense keeping pace with the defense is a good one. Gary Kubiak can be a great play-caller, and will need to really show an understanding of what his young guys can, and cannot, do as contributors.

If Posey and Martin pan out, the Texans could be in position to look for something other than another receiver in the draft. Offensive line and outside linebacker could be positions of need based on what they could lose in free agency.

Indianapolis Colts

Kiper: “The Colts didn't just wait to see what they had in (Andrew) Luck, they went for every possible option to help him transition quickly, and build chemistry with guys he could be throwing the ball to for years …

“(Bruce Arians’) tenure in Pittsburgh was defined by flexibility. The Steelers would pound the ball if they liked the numbers game up front, and they would turn into a spread-out attack if they liked the matchups in the passing game. In Luck, Arians has a QB capable of executing anything he wants to do. I'd expect the Colts not to be vanilla, but actually to come out and show a lot of looks, and be flexible …

“Expect a ton of sub packages and different looks as they try to create pressure to hide a weak secondary.”

Next year's help, now: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia

Kuharsky: The question about a flexible offense that shows a lot of looks is how a patchwork offensive line will function as part of it all. The team is counting on three veteran additions -- center Samson Satele, guard Mike McGlynn, and right tackle Winston Justice to jell and help make the Colts a more physical team.

We must resist getting carried away with the 3-4 talk and concentrate more on the hybrid talk on defense. In nickel situations, I expect the Colts will typically look like a 4-3.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Kiper:Justin Blackmon arrives from Oklahoma State with a reputation as a sterling route-runner and the kind of player who can make a QB look good from the way he can both get down the field and also work back to the ball and fight for it when it's in the air. From Dallas, Laurent Robinson comes over with some question marks, but also the hope that the breakout we saw in the second half of 2011 was reflective of talent, not just opportunity …”

“On defense, Andre Branch could be a decent find at defensive end. He has the size to hold up in the 4-3, and could start immediately. And we know the punting game is secure -- after all, the Jags went with a punter in the third round …

“No way around it; this is all about the development of (Blaine) Gabbert. Again, with Gabbert, it's not a question of arm talent, or even the ability to make the reads. He simply has to be able to manipulate the pocket and get more out of plays when there's even a hint of pressure. Too often last year, any kind of disruption along the line of scrimmage simply destroyed his down-the-field focus. He'd lose his vision and the play would break down.

Next year's help, now: Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU

Kuharsky: Gabbert and the Jaguars are likely sick of hearing the pocket presence question. But there is no way to look back on his rookie season and not ask questions about his ability to handle what’s going on around him as he tries to assess what’s going on downfield.

Expect a lot of safe, short stuff early in games to help build his confidence and develop some rhythm.

Tennessee Titans

Kiper: “Will (Chris) Johnson dance less and get up the field and to the hole quicker? He better, because given what the Titans have, there's no way this team should be the 31st-ranked run offense like they were in 2011. In some ways, it's amazing they accomplished what they did given how little they got from the run game …

“I think the defensive line should be a real strength. Kamerion Wimbley adds a bit to the pass rush, and DT Mike Martin could see reps after being taken in the third round …

“A healthy (Matt) Hasselbeck actually guarantees you a certain level of return on offense, and if you feel like you can be the best team in your division, why take a chance? Locker isn't going anywhere, and as much as him not starting may not bode well for his NFL ceiling, it's not a huge surprise based on how I viewed him coming out of Washington. He has a ton of talent, a big arm and a lot of athletic ability, but he really does need time and certainly a lot of work on accuracy.

“Tennessee should make a decision based on winning now, not on proving how smart it was in the draft. Because the Titans have a chance to be a playoff team.”

Next year's help, now: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi St.

Kuharsky: Kiper takes an uncommon stance with his praise of the defensive line. The Wimbley addition looks good, and Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey were great rookies. Can they duplicate or build on their first-year performances? Derrick Morgan, Sen’Derrick Marks and Shaun Smith all carry big question marks into camp.

The winning now idea is significant and will be a factor in sorting out the quarterback decision. It’s simply too difficult to decide to let a kid take his lumps if you don’t think he’ll offer the best chance to win.