AFC South: Jay Cutler

Ryan Fitzpatrick and Paul PoslusznyUSA Today SportsPaul Posluszny and the Jags are aiming for a season sweep of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tennessee.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maybe Delanie Walker shouldn’t feel so bad now.

The Titans tight end said he was embarrassed after the Jaguars won 29-27 in Nashville on Nov. 10 to pick up their first victory. Since then, the Jaguars are 3-2 with victories over Houston (twice) and Cleveland. The Titans are 1-4 with a victory over Oakland.

There seems to be much more stability in Jacksonville, too, because of the uncertain status surrounding Tennessee coach Mike Munchak.

Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky break down Sunday’s matchup at EverBank Field.

DiRocco: Some Titans players were pretty vocal about being embarrassed due to becoming the first team to lose to the Jaguars. Is that something that still stings, and how have they rebounded from that loss?

Kuharsky: It definitely left a mark. They are only 1-4 since then. It kind of set a bar for how bad they can be and re-established their propensity to lose to teams that are really struggling. The Jaguars are on an upswing since that game, and the Titans are on a downward spiral. If Tennessee losses to the Jaguars again, the Titans will be in line to finish in third place in an awful division, which is well short of their goals and expectations. The Titans are a better team than they were last year. But losing closer isn’t a really big difference in the really big picture.

Let’s turn that around. How has life changed for the Jaguars since that Nov. 10 breakthrough?

DiRocco: I could go into a lot of stats that show how much better the Jaguars are playing, but that's not what's really important. The past six games have been more about the validation of the process, establishing the foundation of the franchise's rebuild, and confidence in the new regime. Coach Gus Bradley never wavered from the plan that he and general manager David Caldwell established. His message stayed the same throughout the eight-game losing streak to start the season: trust in the process, work hard, and focus on improving and not victories, and the victories will eventually come. Because that has happened, the players appear to have completely bought into what Bradley and Caldwell want to do, and there's a confidence in the locker room that the franchise is headed in the right direction.

We talked about Jake Locker the last time these teams met, but that was before he suffered a season-ending injury to his foot. How does that change the Titans' outlook on him and are they in the market for a quarterback in the offseason, too?

Kuharsky: Locker is certain to be on the 2014 Titans. His fourth year isn’t that costly and it’s guaranteed. But they can’t execute a spring option for his fifth year that would line him up for over $13 million. A lot of his fate depends on whether Munchak is back as the head coach. It’s possible they go forward with Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and just-signed Tyler Wilson as their quarterbacks. It’s also possible they’d draft a new guy, and depending on how high of a pick he could land in competition to start. I think it’s less likely they chase a free agent like Jay Cutler if he comes free, but they have to assess all the possibilities. How can they completely commit to Locker based on his injury history?

One side effect of the Jaguars' surge is they aren’t going to be in position to draft the first quarterback taken. What’s your sense of what Bradley and Caldwell want in a quarterback and do you expect one to arrive in the first round?

DiRocco: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said something interesting last week. He said he wants his QB to scramble around, take off running to get yards and take some chances throwing the football. To me, that sounds like a pretty accurate description of Johnny Manziel. I'm not sure how that reconciles with the ideas of his bosses. Bradley comes from Seattle, which has the mobile Russell Wilson. Caldwell comes from Atlanta, which has the considerably less mobile Matt Ryan. My sense is that Bradley and Caldwell probably lean more toward the Wilson end of the spectrum. People think that eliminates Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the case. He's not a runner but he can run if needed. If he's around, I'd expect them to take him. If not, then I would still expect them to go quarterback. It's their most glaring need.

You mentioned Munchak's job status. What's your take on whether he will be back next season -- and should he be?

Kuharsky: He’s shepherded improvement, but his team lacks an ability to finish. He’s 0-4 in the worst division in football, 1-9 in the past two years. His teams have lost to the previously winless Jags in 2013 and the previously winless Colts in 2011. He’s 4-18 against teams with winning records when the Titans played them and 2-19 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. To me, three years is a sufficient sample size to know what you’ve got and those numbers are the most telling thing on his resume. Keep him and they deal with all the limitations connected to a lame duck coach. I don’t know what Tommy Smith, the head of the new ownership, will do. But the fan base overwhelmingly wants change, if that’s worth anything. People still pay for tickets because they’ve got investments in personal seat licenses they do not want to throw away. But a lot of people are staying home on Sundays now.

Cecil Shorts is done and Maurice Jones-Drew is uncertain. How can the Jaguars threaten on offense without their two best weapons?

DiRocco: They were able to put up 20 points and post their second-highest yardage total of the season, including a season-high 159 rushing, in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. Running back Jordan Todman stepped up big time and ran for 109 yards (Jones-Drew cracked 100 only once in the first 13 games) and tight end Marcedes Lewis was more involved in the passing game than in previous weeks (four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown). But I'm not sure that is sustainable. Teams will certainly concentrate on stopping Lewis and make quarterback Chad Henne move the ball with three receivers who have a combined 75 career catches. Todman doesn't scare anyone, either. The Jaguars will have to be creative on offense (they've run gadget plays the past three weeks) and capitalize on every opportunity they get.

With Andrew Luck, the numbers don't lie

October, 10, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- Not that any further proof is necessary, but quarterback Andrew Luck continues to prove the Indianapolis Colts made the right decision in selecting him as the No. 1 overall pick.

The numbers back it up, too.

Luck has a quarterback rating of 77.1 this season. That’s good enough for the fourth highest in the league and is more than an 18-percent increase from last season.

Need further proof that Luck is clearly ahead of his class? Check out the QBR and team record with second-year quarterbacks this season.

RG III's QBR has dropped from 73.2 to 29.1 since last season.

Here are a few more tidbits on why Luck is having a better overall season.

His 88.4 QBR in the fourth quarter is third behind only Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (98.6) and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (93.0). Luck has led the Colts to two fourth quarter comebacks this season.

Luck’s completion percentage has increased to 62.2 percent, up from 54.1 percent last season. He’s been able to complete a higher percentage because the Colts aren’t relying on him to beat teams with his arm. They’re the fourth best rushing team in the league.

Luck still likes to fling the ball down field. Twenty-five percent of his attempts have been for 15 yards or longer, that’s barely less than the 27.1 percent he attempted last season. Luck is doing a better job of completing passes within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. He’s gone from 58.9 percent as a rookie to completing 68.9 percent of his attempts within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage this season.
Two people seemed to make Bruce Arians a great match for two jobs he interviewed for -- San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Those jobs are now filled.

The Chargers hired Mike McCoy and the Bears hired Marc Trestman.

Plenty of folks in Indianapolis were relieved, but the Colts could still lose their offensive coordinator.

Adam Schefter reports that the Arizona Cardinals have requested permission to talk to Arians.

The Cardinals job is, of course, a less desirable one. Arizona has no Rivers or Cutler. Arians wouldn’t be charged with crafting an offense for a quarterback who’s shown he can be effective. He would be charged with finding one.

To move from Andrew Luck to Rivers or Cutler wouldn’t have been nearly as difficult as moving from Luck to the failed quarterbacks the Cardinals have run through.

Perhaps Philadelphia re-emerges as a suitor now as well. The Eagles reportedly had an interview scheduled but it didn’t happen and it’s unclear if Arians is still on their list and if he’d still be interested.
Reading the coverage ...

A ranking of offensive line performance for the entire league, from Phil Gaskin of The Pulling Lineman.

Houston Texans

The Texans are counting on Reliant Stadium to provide a big advantage for them Saturday, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

To which I say: Wouldn’t it have been nice if they were counting on it next week and the week after that? Have you heard they blew three chances to get that?

What happens in the postseason will define Matt Schaub’s legacy, says Jerome Solomon.

Tim Dobbins will be a game-time decision, and if ankle and shoulder injuries keep him out, Barrett Ruud will be a starter at inside linebacker against the Bengals, says Dale Robertson.

Coach Gary Kubiak wants to see reckless abandon from his team on Saturday, not a fear of making mistakes, says Tania Ganguli of the Chronicle.

Robertson remembers the Oilers’ collapse in Buffalo.

J.J. Watt is Pro Football Focus defensive player of the year.

Johnathan Joseph against A.J. Green is a giant matchup in Sunday’s game, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Indianapolis Colts

Jerrell Freeman, not Ray Lewis, will be the best inside linebacker on the field Sunday in Baltimore, says Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star.

The Colts gave the Bears permission to interview Bruce Arians for their head-coaching job, says the AP.

To which I say: Arians could do some good work with Jay Cutler. I wonder who he’ll pitch as his defensive coordinator.

The understated Jim Caldwell is downplaying his role calling the offensive plays for the Ravens against a team he was head coach of a year ago, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Indianapolis Star.

Dwight Freeney is coming off his best game and finishing strong, writes Mike Chappell.

Potential was all over the place for these Colts back in the spring, writes Chappell. Rookies have accounted for 3,108 yards. "That's the most by a team's rookie class since the 1970 NFL merger. The previous high: 2,751 yards by the 1999 Edgerrin James-led Colts."

Jacksonville Jaguars

Shad Khan isn’t expected to hire a new general manager until next week at the earliest, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. Marc Ross of the Giants has emerged as another candidate.

“For now, we wait and speculate," writes John Oehser of "As we do, we’ll spend the coming days taking a look back at the 2012 season, and try to take a look forward to 2013. Of course, these plans blow up immediately when Khan picks a general manager who will shape the franchise for the foreseeable future."

Poor gamesmanship in the draft is one thing we learned the Jaguars can improve upon from the Gene Smith era, says Adam Stites of Big Cat Country.

To which I say: It's a good point that a guy who was all about the draft was OK giving picks up to move up, but didn't move back to accumulate choices.

Tennessee Titans

Are the Titans starting to morph into the dysfunctional Raiders? David Climer of The Tennessean explores.

To which I say: Bud Adams is eccentric, but he’s not the de facto general manager of his team. The Titans aren’t close to the Raiders at their worst.

Cornerback Alterraun Verner says the Titans need more killer instinct, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

The Titans get a B-plus from Dunlevy for their 2012 draft.

Mailbag: Everyone is heard

November, 17, 2012
Shawn from Honolulu writes: We know several teams in the league (especially my Jaguars) will most likely be seeking new general managers after the season. Supposing the Jaguars do clean house, can you provide three GM candidates and three head coach candidates who you believe could make a difference in Jacksonville?

Paul Kuharsky: I hear good things about two potential first-time GMs -- George Paton from Minnesota and Omar Khan from Pittsburgh. I won’t delve into coaches, as I think they need to hire a GM and let him make the hire. But I’d certainly be curious about Chip Kelly -- he would adapt to an NFL situation, not try to shoehorn his current Oregon offense into a pro setting if he wasn’t equipped to do so. Odds are he can get a more attractive NFL job if he wants one.

LX from Chuco, TX writes: When asked if Whitney Mercilus should be started you said (in the latest chat):"You want to sit Brooks Reed or Connor Barwin? Seriously?" If Barwin and Reed have solidified the position, why draft Mercilus?...why use a high pick on him? Did Hou never intend to pay Barwin; and lose a big defensive name for the second consecutive year? Is this a season-long audition to find Barwin a new team? Yes, the salary cap is tricky and maybe they just need insurance, but why so early and why at such a high draft pick? Was Hou anticipating the #1 draft pick to "Kareem-Jackson" for three years before finally losing his Bambi legs and becoming an OK starter????

Paul Kuharsky: For the same reason they drafted Reed when they already had Barwin and Mario Williams. There is no rule against using a high pick on a good player at a position of strength that’s an important position in your scheme (and in the league). It’s how it becomes a position of strength. You are allowed to have good players as depth and role players. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons the team broke through in 2011.

Yes, if Barwin leaves, they are covered. But they didn’t determine back in April when they drafted Mercilus they wouldn’t re-sign Barwin. They were negotiating with Barwin in the preseason and were unable to strike a deal.

Ideally, Mercilus continues to get some playing time so Barwin and Reed don’t have to overextend the way they did in 2011 after Williams went down.

Should Barwin move on, they’ve got his replacement. But they’d probably wind up drafting yet another OLB. Pass rush dictates everything, and OLB in a 3-4 is a position where wise teams have good numbers.

Also, Jackson is better than OK now.

Chris Walker from Jacksonville writes: Paul, it's been great to get an in-depth take from a non-local guy, if only to convince myself that the local guys aren't overreacting (or echoing talking points from the organization). The content is great and getting better, too. For the longest time, I didn't bother with the RTC posts, but your "to which I say" portions changed that completely. My question is: if we get a new GM, will the house-cleaning extend to all the scouts? Should it?

Paul Kuharsky: Thanks for the kind words.

If the Jaguars get a new GM, he would expect to hire an entire scouting staff. He’d interview some current guys, I would expect, but holdover would be minimal, I suspect. I think a new executive needs to be surrounding himself with his own people.

Drew from Fort Bragg, NC writes: I've been a fan of the Colts since I was 7 years old, and with that I've become a fan of you and your AFC South blog. I saw the season that brought Peyton Manning to our team. Of course I missed a great portion of last season because I was deployed overseas, defending our freedoms and what-not, but was overjoyed when we drafted Luck and cleaned house at Indy. I'm having great enjoyment watching this new team breathe life into what I thought was a stagnant franchise. There is a new dawn in Indy... I couldn't really think of any Luck-based analogies that weren't hackneyed. The thing is that I don't want you to screw that up. My argument is that Bruce Arians is a great coach and one definitely worthy of being a head coach. Colts fans acknowledge this ... but you don't have to. You can sweep this under the rug, and not mention it as you have. There are going to be several head coaching positions available at the end of the season and we really don't need them looking to snag our OC away from us. If they look, they look, and Bruce has done a fantastic job. I'm just saying, you know, as a veteran of a foreign war, you might just do us a solid and calm down those coach talks from your end. You know, for the veterans. The veterans who support the Colts. Like me. I'm a veteran. I support the Colts. I don't want to see BA leave. I would never try to make an emotional appeal to jeopardize your journalistic integrity, but yeah. Seriously. Shhhh.

Paul Kuharsky: We so appreciate your service on our behalfs. Thanks.

Arians is no secret around the league. He’s doing a fantasic job filling in for Chuck Pagano.

Here are two things that might put you and Colts’ fans at ease, however.

While lots of teams will be looking for coaches who can oversee the development of young, new quarterbacks, they are generally looking for young guys. Arians is 60, so he might fall outside the area where most owners will be looking. Also, he’d done great work in Pittsburgh as Ben Roethlisberger’s coordinator and potential head coaching jobs didn’t arrive for him.

Should he leave, it would hurt Luck for sure. But Luck’s head coach at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh, left for the 49ers before Luck’s senior year, and Luck managed to survive and advance with an altered staff.

Jonathan from Kempner, TX writes: First, let me thank you for your informative writings. I read your blog daily and eagerly await another post. I was hoping you could clear up a "rules" question I have concerning the hit on Jay Cutler by Tim Dobbins. I thought that once a QB became a runner, all hits were fair game. Just as if he were a running back. If Cutler had crossed the line of scrimmage causing an illegal forward pass, then why was the hit illegal? Wouldn't he become a runner at that point? Thanks for your time, ignore the haters, and keep doing what you’re doing.

Paul Kuharsky: I have gotten several versions of this question and should have done better answering it in the blog before now.

My understanding is, if Cutler is still in the throwing motion and has not clearly passed the line of scrimmage and become a runner, he’s still afforded the protections of a quarterback. That’s certainly the way it was interpreted in this situation.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to write.

Brian S. from Clarksville, TN writes: In reading your evaluation of the Titans during the bye week you say CJ still needs to prove himself in order to be on the team next season, using his bonus due in March as justification of why the organization would release him. My thing is, even if he only ends up like 10th or so statistically, who exactly would the titans replace CJ with? I don't think Jamie Harper or Darius Reynaud are going to make the pro-bowl as full time starters. Draft a RB hoping to find the next CJ or Muscle Hampster? It seems like too much of a risk to let CJ go, who I think has proven he still has the speed and quickness when he spots a hole to be a legit threat. I'd much rather see the titans "overpay" for CJ than to risk turning the RB position to unproven guys. Unless you're telling me the titans are on the brink of Salary Cap jail, there's no reason to "save" CJ's bonus money on some lame principle that his stats don't "justify" the money. In my opinion he may not be in the top 3, but he's still most likely going to be better than anyone else they could get. Of course if they renegotiate the bonus then kudos for them, but unless he goes out and starts committing felonies, cutting CJ shouldn't even be a thought.

Paul Kuharsky: They won’t make the decision based on what else they have or don’t have, they’ll make it based on if they think he’s worth it. The CBA will require them to spend, so I can see them saying, ‘We need to spend anyway and he was good.” But if they decide that’s too pricey, they will have plenty of time to find a back/ combination of backs who can carry the load.

One issue is: He clearly let up after he got big money the first time. Do you guarantee him more and not worry about seeing that happen a second time?

Trip from Jacksonville writes: Did Shad Khan change the primary Jags color from Teal to Black so that the fans are more appropriately dressed for their home game funerals on Sunday?

Paul Kuharsky: Home games certainly have that feel now, don’t they?

Final Word: AFC South

November, 16, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Big rookie test: Andrew Luck will attempt to become the first rookie starting quarterback to win at New England since Kerry Collins for the Panthers in 1995. Since then, Peyton Manning, Byron Leftwich and Mark Sanchez have all lost, while combining to throw for three touchdowns and nine interceptions. (Manning lost his first five regular-season games in New England.) If Luck picks up his seventh win of the season, he will tie Sam Bradford for the most wins by a rookie quarterback selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the common draft era.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesMatt Schaub burned the Jaguars on play-actions passes in Week 2, completing 14 of 16.
Schaub’s success: Since Week 7 of last season, Matt Schaub -- with a 12-1 record as a starter -- has the best winning percentage for a quarterback in that span in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Jay Cutler is 11-2, Matt Ryan 15-4 and Aaron Rodgers 14-4. Although Schaub is first in win-loss record in that time, he’s just eighth in touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.6 TDs for every INT). When the Texans beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville in Week 2, Schaub was 14-of-16 (87.5 percent) on play-action passes. That’s the second-highest completion percentage on play-action throws since the start of 2008 (minimum 15 attempts).

Jaguars’ woes: Jacksonville has lost six consecutive games, the team's longest losing streak since dropping six straight in 2002-03. The Jaguars have lost seven straight games only once, back in their inaugural season of 1995. Jacksonville has played the NFL’s toughest schedule thus far, with its opponents carrying a combined 50-32 record (.610). According to Elias: Since the 1970 merger, there have been 15 matchups in Week 10 or later featuring a team with one or fewer wins against a team with one or fewer losses. The team with one or fewer losses is 12-3 in those matchups. The last such underdog to pull off a win? The Jaguars in 2003 when they beat the Colts.

Reggie Wayne's reliability: Luck and Wayne have connected downfield in ways that Manning and Wayne didn’t in their final seasons together. Wayne has 37 catches of more than 10 yards downfield through nine games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In his final four years with Manning as his quarterback, he never had more than 33 in a full season. Luck’s average pass has traveled a league-high 10.3 yards downfield, but his short passing has gotten better recently. Luck has completed at least 69 percent of his throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in the Colts’ last four games. He had completed fewer than 60 percent of those throws in four of his first five games.

Also: Arian Foster has scored a touchdown in each of his past 11 games, tied for the second-longest streak in the past 10 years. LaDainian Tomlinson had an 18-game streak spanning the 2004 and 2005 seasons. ... New England and Indianapolis face each other for the 10th time in the regular season since 2002, which is when the current division format was created. Only one other pair of non-division opponents played each other as many as nine times over that same span: Carolina and Arizona. ... The Colts are getting a league-high 42.7 percent of their yards from scrimmage from rookies. Washington is No. 2 at 37.9 percent. ... The Titans have their bye this week.
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips asks absolutely reasonable questions when he wonders about the NFL’s $30,000 fine against Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins for a hit on Jay Cutler Sunday night.

Boiled down from Tania Ganguli’s story at the Houston Chronicle web site, is this:

Why is a hit to a quarterback on a play where he’s throwing the ball -- and after which he was able to stay in the game -- so much more costly than a hit to a linebacker’s knee that puts him out for the season?

Brian Cushing suffered a torn ACL when he was hit by Jets offensive lineman Matt Slauson in the Texans' Oct. 8 "Monday Night Football" win against New York at MetLife Stadium. Slauson wasn’t flagged, but it was judged an illegal peel-back block on a change of possession and resulted in a $10,000 fine.

Meanwhile, Dobbins’ hit on Cutler was priced at three times that.

Both games were on national TV.

The league can attempt to judge intent, severity, danger, result and anything it likes when doling out discipline. But while officials can slow down the tape and watch it from every available angle, they cannot get inside people’s heads.

And do we know, definitively, that Cutler suffered the concussion on the hit from Dobbins, and not on the very next play when he crashed into Kareem Jackson at the end of a scramble on the very next play? If the concussion came from that and not the Dobbins hit, would the league’s fine have been less? Should it have been?

I share Phillips’ confusion. He’s just on the sidelines in a headset and I’m just in the press box with binoculars. Imagine how much harder it is for amped up players at full speed to make judgments in play that leave them to sort through a FedEx envelope that is delivered to their lockers.

It was a dumb hit by Dobbins. He shouldn’t have been aiming so high. I’d even raise the dollar figure a bit for his denial that he hit Cutler in the head when it was clear he did.

It’s too easy and too dangerous to say the extent of an injury should have a bigger weight in the penalty assessment. Freak injuries happen in every game, and two of the same hits in the same circumstances -- as if there could be such an exact duplication -- wouldn’t necessarily have the same result.

The league can do better, however, at contextualizing what unfolds and comparing it to what else has unfolded. And it can do far better at making defenders feel like they aren’t half as important as their offensive brethren.

While concussions are the big issue now, let’s not disproportionately apply justice to plays connected to illegal hits connected to head injuries while minimizing others to different body parts. To at least a small degree, the league is telling Cushing that his knee means less than Cutler’s head. The two offenses shouldn’t automatically be the same fine. But they shouldn’t automatically be dramatically different, either.

It’s complicated stuff to sort out.

Take for example, the opinion of a defensive star in the league like Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.

“I think they shouldn’t allow cut blocks because our knees are important to us, too,” Urlacher said, the same week his quarterback suffered a concussion, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. “I know concussions are a big deal, too, but I think cut blocks are a big deal but that seems to be OK with the NFL so they’re not too concerned about safety. They’re concerned about long-term concussions, but immediately they are not concerned about your knees or your ankles or anything like that. I think that should be an issue."

That helps illustrate the league is hardly where it needs to be in getting a handle on player safety.

And while it can get a better handle, one might argue getting a good handle is simply never going to be possible given the game we’re discussing.
Tim Dobbins didn’t expect the shot that left Jay Cutler with a concussion Sunday night to result in a fine.

But Adam Schefter has a source who says Dobbins is being fined $30,000 for the blow, ruled a hit above the shoulders by referee Gene Steratore at Soldier Field.

Dobbins is the replacement for Brian Cushing in the Texans lineup since Cushing went down with a torn ACL suffered Oct. 8.

After the game against the Bears, he ridiculously denied hitting Cutler in the head though replays showed he banged his helmet into the quarterback’s chin. Dobbins told me he hit Cutler in the chest.

I asked if he feared he’d get fined: “I don’t think so and I hope not. I felt like it was on time.”

Did he hit him in the chin? The head? “I hit him in his chest. I did not hit him in his head.”

I cringed as he said it, because I was picturing a replay of the hit paired with that audio -- which producers should be working on now if they weren’t before.

RTC: Pagano gives Colts a purpose

November, 13, 2012
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

“And now, for their encore performance, the Texans need to crush the Jacksonville Jaguars like a June bug under a bulldozer,” writes John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, looking ahead to Jaguars-Texans.

Defensive line coach Bill Kollar (blood clot) plans to be back with the team Wednesday, says McClain.

Injured Texans starters could be back for the Jaguars game, says Nick Scurfield of the team’s website. There should be no reason to rush tight end Owen Daniels, defensive tackle Shaun Cody or reserve running back Ben Tate.

The penalties against Jay Cutler and Tim Dobbins didn’t come out in a fair way, but should, says George Breather of The Fifth Down.

Indianapolis Colts

Chuck Pagano’s illness has provided the Colts with a purpose, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

To which I say: The idea of a purpose for a young team is a big deal. And Pagano’s situation has provided this team with something big to fight for over the long haul, bonding a group in a rare way.

Cornerback Darius Butler is a starter now and Jerraud Powers is on IR, says Phil Richards of the Star. Nose tackle Josh Chapman’s time to contribute has come, too.

Jacksonville Jaguars

If there is a good time to play the Texans this season, Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union thinks this might be it. “It would seem difficult for the Texans to come close to duplicating the emotion they displayed against the Bears, especially because they beat the Jaguars 27-7 in Jacksonville in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score sounded.”

Defensive end George Selvie has gotten more and more playing time, says Ryan O’Halloran of the T-U.

The Jaguars signed another Greg Jones, says O’Halloran.

Can Cecil Shorts reach 1,000 receiving yards, asks Luke Sims of Black and Teal.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans know it would take a lot, but still see a possibility of a playoff berth, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: That’s what they have to say and believe. I know things can change quickly, but I look at the AFC standings and have trouble seeing anything different than the Colts and the second-place team in the AFC North as wild cards.

As they self-scout, the Titans will pay particular attention to Kenny Britt, says John Glennon of The Tennessean. They want to see if he can be utilized better.
Michael BushNuccio DiNuzzo/Getty ImagesThe Texans forced four turnovers from a Bears team that hadn't given up the ball much all season.
CHICAGO -- The Houston Texans beat up the Tennessee Titans when they played, just like the Chicago Bears did.

But when Chicago did it, it had more amplitude -- four turnovers forced by Charles Tillman punching balls loose followed by a presidential endorsement by a Bears fan of the cornerback as defensive player of the year.

In the buildup to Sunday night’s Texans-Bears matchup here at Soldier Field, the Bears-as-a-turnover machine was very much the lead story.

In a league full of imagined slights, that was taken as a real one by the Texans. So they really relished winning the game, between teams that started the night with 7-1 records, and announcing with the 13-6 result in high winds and heavy rain that they’re equipped to travel whatever route necessary to victory.

“You know in every defensive category the Texans are in the top five,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “Obviously, they deserve credit for all those turnovers they get. I think people kind of overlooked our defense as a whole and kind of focused in on what they do as far as turning the ball over. I think we were conscious of that and wanted to show everybody.”

While defensive coordinator Wade Phillips downplayed things in his traditional aw-shucks manner after the game, Barwin was echoing Phillips' Saturday night message.

On this night, it was the Texans with four takeaways to Chicago’s two, it was the Texans who allowed only two third-down conversions and it was the Texans who knocked a starting quarterback out of the game.

“They made more big plays than we did,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said.

Houston coach Gary Kubiak said he was exceptionally proud of the overall effort given the weather conditions, environment and caliber of competition.

“We were able to win the way we had to tonight,” he said.

Compare their ability to win in a low-scoring slugfest with the much different kind of victory they notched in Denver in a 31-25 game on Sept. 23. It’s yet another display of balance for a team that can win with offense or defense, by running or passing, with pass rush or secondary play.

Plays came from all over the defense against the Bears, with former Chicago safety Danieal Manning leading the way with a forced fumble and an interception. Glover Quin forced a fumble, too, while inside linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bradie James took care of the recoveries. Kareem Jackson chipped in with an interception as well.

The Bears' often maligned offensive line didn’t yield a sack and did solid work against the usually dominant lineman J.J. Watt, but Dobbins dealt a big blow to the home team with a shot to Jay Cutler toward the end of the first half.

Cutler was flagged for throwing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, a call that stood up to a challenge, while Dobbins was whistled for hitting Cutler “above the shoulders.” It was a play that left Cutler sprawled on the turf for a bit and with a concussion, though he remained in the game until intermission.

“I was wondering what happened to him, a lot of us were,” said Dobbins, who replaced Brian Cushing in the lineup after Cushing sustained a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8.

“I felt like [the hit] was on time,” Dobbins said.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastArian Foster had 102 yards on 29 carries and scored the only the touchdown of the game on a diving catch in the second quarter.
He wasn’t sure if it was his blow or one delivered by Jackson at the end of a Cutler scramble on the very next play that ultimately meant Jason Campbell would play the second half.

“I have no idea, I have no clue,” he said, before touching on the increasingly taboo topic of knocking a player from the game. “But it was good that he was out, though. I mean you always want to take the quarterback out of the game. I hit him in his chest. I did not hit him in his head. Nowhere near it. I did not touch his helmet.”

Typically Dobbins said he would look to hit a quarterback hip-high, but as Cutler was still trying to make a play, he felt going higher gave him more of a chance to “mess up the throw as well.”

Multiple Texans said that once Campbell was in the game, the Bears simplified what they were trying to do and became easier to defend. Chicago got just as many first downs with Campbell playing as it did with Cutler (four) and more yards, thanks mostly to a 45-yard Campbell-to-Brandon Marshall connection.

Never playing from behind, Houston relied on running back Arian Foster to help eat up the clock. With about eight minutes left he approached Kubiak and asked him for the ball. Foster finished with 29 carries for 102 yards and five catches for 15 yards, including a diving catch on the goal line of a 2-yard throw from Matt Schaub for the game's only touchdown. (Marshall dropped Chicago's best chance.)

Yes, they’re able to do anything and win a game of any shape. But the Texans are built around their ability to run and that defense.

In the buildup to the Texans’ next game, feeling somewhat slighted won’t be an issue.

Jacksonville will bring one of the NFL’s two worst teams to Houston for a game that won’t be played anywhere near prime time.

As for how we all discuss the Texans between now and then, defensive lineman Antonio Smith would like to sing us all a lullaby.

“They can keep sleeping on Bulls on Parade, man,” Smith said, invoking a defensive nickname known more locally that nationally. “Chicago this, Chicago that. I don’t know what the stats were, but it sure looked like we played a better defensive game than they did.

“We knew it was going to be a defensive battle. It’s like a competition. Every time they made a play it just got us more amped up to go out there and make a play on our end. So it worked against them, making good plays.”

Rapid Reaction: Texans 13, Bears 6

November, 11, 2012

CHICAGO -- Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 13-6 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field:

What it means: The Texans won on the road against a top NFC team in bad weather to boost their record to 8-1 and should get even more attention as a potential Super Bowl team after this effort in Chicago.

What I liked: After all the talk about the Bears’ propensity for creating turnovers, it was the Texans who proved to have more of the playmaking defense with four takeaways -- two fumbles and two picks of Chicago’s Jay Cutler. Running back Arian Foster did yeoman’s work, with 29 carries for 102 yards. He also scored the game’s lone touchdown with a pretty diving catch of a 2-yard pass from Matt Schaub with linebacker Lance Briggs covering him well. While Brandon Marshall made a big 45-yard catch, there were hardly any instances when you felt like a run or short pass by Chicago had a chance to turn into something significant and damaging.

Other good things: While a potential big return by Keshawn Martin was washed away by a holding penalty, and Donnie Jones wasn’t crushing his punts, the Texans' special teams had a reasonably good night. Coverage teams contained Devin Hester, making several one-on-one tackles. And while Chicago’s Robbie Gould missed a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter that would have made it 10-9 Texans, Houston’s Shayne Graham hit his attempts from 20 and 42 yards.

What I didn’t like: On a rainy, windy night, Schaub and the Texans couldn’t find much through the air. A deep, bootleg pass for Andre Johnson on their first series went off his fingertips. Kevin Walter's 23-yard reception in the third quarter was the long pass of the day for Houston.

What I want to know: How much linebacker Tim Dobbins is going to get fined for the hit above the shoulders to Cutler that left the Bears quarterback with a concussion that kept him out of the second half.

What’s next: The Texans host Jacksonville at Reliant Stadium in an AFC South matchup. Houston won the first matchup at EverBank Field on Sept. 16, 27-7.

Breaking down J.J. Watt's play

November, 9, 2012
Earlier this week, we pointed to a radio interview with J.J. Watt where he expressed enthusiasm for moving around a great deal on Wade Phillips’ defensive front.

John McTigue of Stats and Info, apparently a dedicated reader of the AFC South blog, reached out with an email that spelled out details of where exactly Watt has lined up this season.

While we talk about the Texans as a 3-4, we need to remember it winds up with a four-man front in most nickel situations. So Watt is technically inside quite a bit, with 34 percent of his snaps coming inside.

Breaking down his numbers is a constant source of fun:

Since sacks became official for individuals in 1982, Watt is the 39th player to notch 10 though his team’s first eight games. The unique thing abut it is his age -- he is just the third to do so before turning 24. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in 2001 and Leonard Marshall in 1985 did it when they were 23 years old, like Watt has.

Watt has recorded at least a half sack, a half tackle for loss or a batted/tipped pass on 30 plays this season, 12 more than the next highest defender (Von Miller, 18). Watt has already exceeded his totals in all three categories from last season.

He’s first in the NFL in sacks with 10.5, first with nine batted/tipped passes and third with 8.5 tackles for a loss.

He’s showing no signs of slowing down, and there are mismatches to be found on a Chicago offensive line that’s been a source of some problems. Bears have allowed 28 sacks of Jay Cutler.

Final Word: AFC South

November, 9, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

Rare matchup: The 7-1 Texans pay a visit to Soldier Field for a date with the 7-1 Bears on Sunday night. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s just the fifth time since the merger that two teams with one or no losses are meeting in Week 10 or later. The only other such matchup that happened within the past 20 years was a 2007 clash between the Cowboys and Packers. Good news for Bears fans: The home team has won each of the four previous such meetings.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe Texans will try to contain Brandon Marshall, who has been targeted on 38 percent of the Bears' passes this season.
Tough coverage: While he may get help, Johnathan Joseph should cover the Bears' most dangerous receiver, Brandon Marshall. Marshall accounts for 37.9 percent of the Bears’ targets this season -- the league high by 7.6 percent -- and 58.3 percent of the Bears’ receiving touchdowns. In 2011 and 2012, Marshall’s quarterbacks have thrown to him 37 times in the end zone. He’s faring far better catching those balls with Jay Cutler throwing them -- snaring five of 12 chances. Joseph had a couple of bad games when he was dealing with a groin injury, but he seems to be back to form. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips talked about how Marshall is the only guy the Bears throw to. Houston’s pass defense will certainly be centered on him.

Finding his footing: After struggling in four of his first five games, Titans running back Chris Johnson has found his groove. Over the past four games, Johnson has averaged 131.5 rush yards per game. His 7.1 yards per carry average since Week 6 ranks second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson among players with at least 30 carries. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin is third at 6.6. Watch how Johnson’s offensive linemen try to sustain their initial blocks while allowing either fullback Quinn Johnson or tight end Craig Stevens to lead Johnson and make the key initial block at the second level. That approach has been making a big difference.

Third-down D: Houston and Chicago have topflight third-down defenses, which have had a direct impact on how quarterbacks fare against them. Houston has allowed the lowest QBR in the league (17.4), and Chicago has allowed the second lowest (20.6). The third lowest is the Eagles, and quarterbacks do far better against them with a 38.3 QBR. The Texans have the lowest conversion rate allowed (26.5 percent) on third down, with the Bears ranking third (33.0 percent). If some of this holds true in this matchup, the more poised quarterback should have the better chance of leading his team to the win.

Also: Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler have each won 11 of their past 12 starts dating back to Week 7 of 2011. That is tied for the best record by any starting quarterback in the NFL over that span. ... Schaub has yet to throw an interception on a play-action pass this season. ... The Dolphins have been terrible against the AFC South over the past seven seasons. Miami has lost three straight and 11 of its past 13 against the division. The Dolphins' last win in such a matchup, however, was over the Titans -- in Week 10 of 2010 season. ... Houston has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. ... The Colts beat the Jaguars 27-10 in Jacksonville on Thursday night. Indianapolis plays Week 11 at New England, while the Jaguars head to Houston.

Details on the Luck-Wayne connection

November, 9, 2012
At the start of the Colts’ Thursday night win over the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Andrew Luck developed rhythm by throwing to his most dependable target. Of course, to go so often to Reggie Wayne, the receiver had to be open.

ESPN Stats & Info says Luck began the game by targeting Reggie Wayne on eight of his first nine attempts for six completions, 64 yards and four first downs.

Then, a fourth-quarter connection on third down extended the duo’s league-lead in conversions (18), completions (20) and yards (302) on third down.

In the Colts' 27-10 win at EverBank Field, Wayne was targeted 11 times and caught eight passes for 96 yards.

Stats & Info says Luck has targeted Wayne on 30.8 percent of his passes this season. That’s the third highest quarterback-to-receiver number in the league behind only Jay Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall in Chicago (38.0 percent) and Matt Cassel-to-Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City (31.8 percent).

The Colts rookie quarterback has thrown to Wayne a league-high 106 times this season, 13 more times than No. 2 Victor Cruz has been targeted by Eli Manning. Marshall is third with 89 targets.

When general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano took over in Indianapolis, they sold Wayne on re-signing to be a lynchpin in their rebuild.

Now the veteran receiver who’s about to turn 34 may rank as the most valuable non-quarterback on offense in the NFL. He’s done what they hoped for and more, not just by getting open and being productive, but by offering the right messages for a young team at the right time.

And that rebuilding?

The Colts are 6-3 and in great shape to win a playoff spot. Wayne is used to playing in the postseason. If he keeps playing like he has been, he may help ensure his revamped team appears in the postseason yet again.

Fraying Titans overmatched by Bears

November, 4, 2012
Mike MunchakAP Photo/Wade PayneMike Munchak and the Titans have a lot of work to do after Sunday's blowout loss to the Bears.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans coaches warned players all week about how Charles Tillman strips the ball, offering specifics of his techniques.

Then four Titans went out and got stripped by the Bears cornerback, including Kenny Britt on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

What does that say about the quality of players on Tennessee’s roster and their ability to absorb and execute a coaching message?

Not anything good.

Tennessee unraveled quickly and thoroughly en route to its 51-20 loss to the Bears on Sunday at LP Field. It would have been hard to play a worse first quarter had the Titans prepared a game plan for it. And some of their gaffes made it hard to see anything but an undisciplined, unprepared and ineffective cast of characters that isn’t the nucleus for a resurgence but a core lacking the sort of central DNA necessary to create a contender.

It also created more questions in my mind than I’ve ever had before about the job security of coach Mike Munchak and his staff.

“If a team underperforms, I’m the first guy you should look at for that, not anybody else, not assistant coaches, it starts with me,” Munchak said. “If we don’t finish the season the way it should, then what needs to happen will happen. ...

“We’ve got seven games to play. If we win all seven, all of a sudden this would be kind of a wasted argument.”

Yes, on the heels of this debacle, let’s dream of seven-game winning streaks.

But first, how about cleaning up things like illegal-formation penalties on consecutive first-quarter plays, where a receiver covered up the tight end?

“We had those plays in our hands days ago and had a meeting about it [Saturday] night and had a meeting about it [Sunday] morning,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I don’t know what to say. That’s not good.”

Rookie receiver Kendall Wright said he thought he was responsible for at least one of the calls.

“It hurt the team a lot,” he said. “But what I did at practice all week, I thought I was on the ball. I screwed it up. It’s my fault all the way.”

He thought he was on the ball all week, but he was supposed to be off the ball and no one spotted it or corrected it until the officiating crew got a look on Sunday? Sorry, but that is some major evidence in a case against the people running things for this team right now.

“We just have to pay attention more and know the right things to do, know where to line up,” Chris Johnson said. “These coaches all week gave us the right formula and we had a good week of practice. It makes it even worse when you have a good week of practice and do everything right during the week, get to the game and mess up.”

The Titans were out of this game in a flash, trailing 28-2 at the end of an atrocious first quarter.

“We screwed up from the get-go,” guard Steve Hutchinson said.

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesChicago's Charles Tillman made an impact right from the start of Sunday's game.
The log for the first 15 minutes:
“That first quarter is horrible,” Wright said. “We can’t spot anybody 28 points and expect to come back and win.”

Jordan Babineaux was the one Titans player I talked to who didn’t offer an immediate defense of the coaches and the plan.

“You got any questions, you’ve got to ask the defensive coordinator,” he said, referring to Jerry Gray.

I asked about the blocked punt, where he was lined up as the personal protector, but where he didn’t offer protection, running to the right and cutting out of the backfield entirely. He said I’d need to ask the special-teams coach, Alan Lowry.

The Titans’ margin for error is obviously small against a good team. They didn’t have room for this brand of clunker.

“Sometimes what is said is that wasn’t us and we’ll just sweep it under the rug and get back to being us,” Hasselbeck said. “But those are good teams that built a cushion for themselves that are up front in their division and playoffs are probably on the way anyway. ... We can’t have a stinker. We can’t just lay an egg like that. So that’s what’s disappointing. It’s hard to say that just wasn’t us.”

“It’s a bad loss,” McCourty said. “When you go out and it’s as embarrassing as that is, it just sucks to be a part of it.”

Where do they go from here?

A year ago, they were 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year it looks like that record could earn a spot in the postseason field. There are a couple of teams every year that weren’t looking good at the halfway point and finish big.

Munchak will sell the Titans that they can be that team.

What degree of belief will he get back? What degree of belief does he deserve back?

Down 31-5 at the half, he challenged his team to go out and do something special, something unexpected.

That didn’t happen.

After it was over, he preached about how everyone is in this together, how they’ve got to stick together, that they can’t split.

Munchak may be able to glue players together and the roster may be composed of guys who will stay unified. The sad truth is such solidarity may ultimately not mean a thing when it comes to altering the Titans’ fortunes.