AFC South: Luke McCown

Drew Stanton knows Bruce Arians’ system quite well from working as Andrew Luck’s backup, and could have a chance for some playing time in Arizona.

His departure to the Cardinals means the Indianapolis Colts have a new need: A No. 2 behind Luck. It's hard to envision Chandler Harnish, the last pick of last year's draft, seizing the job. He'll be learning a second offense in his second year.

The list of free-agent quarterbacks is a poor one.

Ryan Fitzpatrick was just cut in Buffalo. Jason Campbell could be a functional spot starter.

The Colts might need to pounce on one of them given the other options: Josh Johnson, Charlie Batch, Rex Grossman, Kellen Clemens, Byron Leftwich, Tyler Thigpen, David Carr, Josh McCown, Brady Quinn, Luke McCown, Caleb Hanie, Matt Leinart or Jordan Palmer.

I’m thinking the same thing you’re thinking: I sure hope Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas upgrade Luck’s protection, because the Colts can’t afford for him to be hurt.
The Jaguars went into free agency in 2012 determined to get an upgrade at backup quarterback.

Luke McCown simply didn’t give them a good enough alternative to Blaine Gabbert last season.

Henne
Their choice was former Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne.

Some outsiders projected that Henne would challenge Gabbert for the starting job in training camp, but that never materialized. Gabbert was better, and I believe Henne was worse, than the Jaguars' new coaching staff expected.

Sunday in Oakland, Gabbert was off to a very good start when he was crunched into the turf and ultimately knocked out of the game with a left shoulder injury in the second quarter.

The Jaguars led 14-3 when Henne replaced Gabbert, and the offense was significantly worse under the leadership of the backup.

Per ESPN Stats & Info, here’s the breakdown of quarterback play.
  • Gabbert: 26 plays, 5.5 yards per play, two negative plays.
  • Henne: 35 plays, 1.9 yards per play, seven negative plays.

Gabbert posted a passer rating of 123.6; Henne was at 54.4.

Jason Campbell and Kyle Orton were probably the two best free-agent options as backup quarterbacks. I thought Campbell would have been a good choice for Jacksonville.

He landed in Chicago and Orton landed in Dallas.

The Jaguars landed in the loss column in Oakland in large part because Henne landed in Jacksonville.

Maybe he gets another chance or two and is heroic for the Jaguars this season.

The discussion regarding this team right now centers on its lack of talent. Four years into his term, general manager Gene Smith has picked a good share of the roster.

He picked Henne. Today, it looks like the latest example of a bad assessment.

Jaguars: Backup QB plan

June, 6, 2012
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NFC Backup QBs: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Assessing the Jaguars’ backup QB situation if Blaine Gabbert is injured and misses time.

When Chad Henne arrived in Jacksonville as a free agent, there was some early talk that he could quickly win the favor of coaches and be only a short distance from the starter's job. If Gabbert struggles, as he did as a rookie, that could ultimately prove to be the case. But that feeling apparently cooled once the team got on the field for offseason work. Still, the team signed Henne because it needed a better alternative to Gabbert than it had last year in Luke McCown. Henne has a big arm and a reasonably good resume (36 games, a 75.7 passer rating) in a league in which many teams are thin at the backup quarterback spot.

Confidence rating (out of 100) if Gabbert is out for extended period: 64.
One player I think will be outgoing, one player I think should be incoming, for the Jacksonville Jaguars once free agency opens Tuesday afternoon.

I’m steering clear of the huge guys on the incoming category, as it’s easy to say a team should covet the best/most expensive player at a position of need.

Outgoing: Jeremy Mincey, defensive end. I think he’s a good player and I think the Jaguars would like to keep him. But after Mario Williams, who will command a fortune, and Dwight Freeney, who could be released if he’s not traded, and John Abraham, Mincey’s the best end who will hit the market. I think someone will offer him a contract that’s on the wrong side of what the Jaguars deem him to be worth.

Incoming: Jason Campbell, quarterback. Sure, they need a defensive end and a couple of receivers, and I am hopeful they will shop in those departments. But they also need a quality backup to Blaine Gabbert who’s helpful to him but also a better fallback plan than Luke McCown was. And there are slim pickings at quarterback, so they should be aggressive with Campbell.
Early thoughts on the Jaguars scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13, with thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive right and restricted free agents.

QB Luke McCown -- I would think they will look to upgrade the backup so they have a fallback plan and better mentor for Blaine Gabbert.

OT Guy Whimper -- He was banged up and streaky in 2011. He’s OK as a third tackle, but doesn’t rate as a priority.

DE Jeremy Mincey -- Had a breakout year and is a high-energy pass-rusher who will be better as they add a big-time end. Probably wants more than they’ll pay.

DE Matt Roth -- They got him cheaply on a one-year deal. As they look to add a premier guy at the spot, it seems they'd like him back as part of the rotation at the right price.

S Dwight Lowery -- The No. 1 priority among their free agents. He transitioned very well from corner to safety and fixed a problem they don’t want to have to address again.

CB Rashean Mathis -- Combination of torn ACL and age (31) means they will be looking to replace him. Though he could be back late if he’s cheap.

K Josh Scobee -- A very solid kicker I feel sure they’d love to retain.

Other UFAs:

Jaguars regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 27
Preseason Power Ranking: 19

[+] EnlargeMaurice-Jones Drew
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMaurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards despite playing with the NFL's worst passing offense.
Biggest surprise: The Jaguars added six new veterans to their lineup of top-12 defensive players and once the group jelled it played very productively. Jacksonville finished sixth in overall defense, making giant strides from 2010 and maintaining the gain even as it lost a load of quality contributors to injury. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who finished the season as interim coach after Jack Del Rio was fired, did good work in his first season as the defense's playcaller. Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny was the sort of centerpiece tackling machine the team envisioned when signing him away from Buffalo as a free agent.

Biggest disappointment: The Jaguars didn’t intend for rookie QB Blaine Gabbert to start 14 games before they felt he was ready to take over. But by cutting David Garrard (who later wound up having back surgery) just a week before the season started and bailing quickly on veteran Luke McCown, they went against their own plan and paid a huge price for it. Jacksonville’s pass offense was worse than anyone could have anticipated, averaging just 136.2 yards per game. The NFL’s best passing offense in New Orleans averaged 334.2. Gabbert may not have been much better operating behind better protection and with more dangerous weapons at receiver, but it sure would have been good for him to have had a chance to find out. Tight end Marcedes Lewis killed the team with his disappearing act after he got his payday.

Biggest need: While the defense will need a pass-rushing end and at least one cornerback, the attention has to be focused on the offense. Mike Thomas was the team’s No. 1 receiver in 2011 but slumped badly after he got a contract extension and was not equipped to work as the primary guy. He should be the third option in 2012, working primarily out of the slot. The Jaguars need big, fast and physical receivers who can threaten downfield and go get the ball for Gabbert or whoever winds up playing quarterback.

Team MVP: Unquestionably, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He’s just the fifth back since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in rushing on a team with the NFL’s worst passing offense. That means with no threat to keep defenses honest, he ran consistently against stacked boxes and still produced in a giant way. There are always worries about wear and tear on him, yet he finished very strongly with no sign of tapering off. The Jaguars need to get other guys who are good with the ball in their hands so they can rely on him less, extend his window, and increase the chance he’s on a winning team.

Still searching for pressure: How long have the Jaguars needed a consistent pass-rush threat off the edge? It seems they are always looking. Jeremy Mincey is a great, high-energy player, but he’d benefit greatly from having a player opposing offenses have to game plan around. Yes, the franchise missed badly when it traded up to No. 8 for Derrick Harvey in the 2008 draft and counted on its second pick the same year, Quentin Groves, to help rush too. They are mistakes they still haven’t made up for. Knee injuries and rehabilitation have meant Aaron Kampman has played in only 11 games in two seasons and will be hard to bank on.

Mailbag: Wrestling your tough questions

December, 17, 2011
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John Lloyd from Yulee, Fla., writes: I count 24 players on jag IR. How did you get 27?

Paul Kuharsky: They placed a couple on IR that they eventually reached a settlement with. That means they can release those players while they're still injured. So they disappeared from the roster. But their seasons ended when they were put on IR.


Jason from Philadelphia writes: You get 10 Colts players to keep next year, who are they? Top 5 in order, 6-10 doesn't have to be. Manning doesn't count. Freeney Mathis Castonzo Bethea Nevis Angerer Ijalana Wayne Clark Collie. Picked the tackles and Nevis because they are new draft picks and have shown promise when healthy. I've always stayed positive but that list was harder than I thought it would be. The talent level has really dropped off. I almost put McAfee in there.

Paul Kuharsky: OK, Manning doesn’t count and I am really concentrating on having the best team I can next year. I’ve changed this a bit from when I emailed you back.

I’d go: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pat Angerer, Anthony Castonzo, Ben Ijalana, Drake Nevis and Jerraud Powers. Donald Brown just missed. I think he can actually run and will get out of the doghouse if there is a new regime. I think Dallas Clark's injuries are starting to mount and I don’t know if you can expect anything close to a full season from him.


Jimmy Bagley from Philly, Pa., writes: Looking at your rankings, I am trying to figure out why you have Houston so low.... Why wouldn't they be at the number 4 spot? Green Bay, obviously number one with a bullet. Baltimore, number two ok. N.O. should be 3 and the Texans at 4... At this point in the season, why aren't the tie breakers used to figure these in.... Houston holds the tie breaker over both Pit and NE.... They were the first team in the AFC to clinch, and have the best divisional record of all the teams.... Not to mention the number 2 defense in the league and a top 3 running game.... They have managed to win in all types of circumstances.... After last week’s come from behind win I thought for sure it would win over critics waiting for them to choke... What else is going to take for the respect to come in.

Paul Kuharsky: What you are looking for, apparently, is the official playoff order for the league right now. (If we do that, what’s the point?) What the power rankings are looking for is my opinion on where teams stand. The official playoff rankings of the moment don’t take into account a third-string quarterback as the starter. No matter how impressive T.J. Yates has been, we have a very small sample size so far. And I have a tough time ranking a team he’s leading ahead of one led by Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger, who’ve won Super Bowls. The one case you can make is that the Texans should be ahead of Pittsburgh based on having beaten them. But the Steelers are a much better team now than they were then.

Also you suggest I should rank the Texans higher because they clinched earlier and have a better division record. So they get a reward for the Colts and Jaguars stinking and the Titans being average?

I have Houston sixth. I think we differ on whether that’s good or bad. I think it’s quite good.

I am continually amazed by how people regard the issue of respect. I think, universally, analysts are impressed by what the Texans have done and think they are a very good team. Apparently some of you think we should be holding parades for them and telecasting half-hour specials about their greatness.


Scott Freistat from Hermitage, Tenn., writes: ESPN's latest ranking poll states that if the playoffs were to start today (12/13) the Texans would have the No. 1 seed. How is that possible considering they have the same records as the Ravens (10-3) and the Ravens own the head-to-head matchup? Please explain.

Paul Kuharsky: In a three-way tie, head-to-head results aren’t the top tiebreaker because it does nothing to factor in the third team. The Ravens win a tiebreaker over the Steelers being from same division. Then it’s Texans-Ravens-Patriots. If one team has swept the other two, it wins a tiebreaker. If not, then it’s conference record. The Texans win that right now.


Brian Vining from Douglas, Ga., writes: Who is Matt Williamson? So I guess this so called expert wants to give up on a first round QB who has no weapons except for Maurice jones-Drew. Gabbert was not even going to be the starter this year. He is a young QB who needs time to develop. With a good coach and a couple of WR who can catch the ball Gabbert will be great. I'm not saying the Jags is the best out of the three but if I were a coach and could go to a team with a young up and coming QB. A great RB in MJD and a much improved defense I would jump on it. That's not even to mention Gene Smith who has the right philosophy to build a team who can contend for years. National media at it again. Gabbert sucks, the Jags can't fill the stadium, Jags are moving to LA. Maybe if some of them would actually do a little homework they would know none of this is true.

Paul Kuharsky: Williamson is a former NFL scout who knows as much about current personnel as anyone in my business.

Your logic falls apart here: “Gabbert was not even going to be the starter this year.” Then why is he the starter this year? Nothing catostrophic happened. The team chose to cut David Garrard and it chose to bench Luke McCown. Those moves made Gabbert the starter. If you don’t want him starting, arrange for him not to start. I don’t know how we can say he was not supposed to start and offer amnesty based on that. They are starting him. As promising as Gabbert may be, it’s not at all inaccurate to say he’s been horrible this season.

I like Smith, but the rebuild is not moving at a fast enough pace. His philosophy starts with foundation-building and two good lines. Three years in, I don’t see two good lines, do you? And where is anything close to a late-round home run?


Mike M. from Houston writes: The next man up approach only works if the next man up has talent. The Texans have shown that they have talent beyond the 22 starters on the roster. Most have been draft picks, UDFA's, or were low level free agents when acquired (like Kevin Walter or Jason Allen). Does this make Rick Smith the front runner for executive of the year???

Paul Kuharsky: That’s an excellent point, that the next man up has to be equipped to do the job. Lots of teams without good depth get hurt and fall apart.

But let’s not make it like Rick Smith is at the powerful end of the spectrum of GMs in terms of decision-making. It’s a joint operation and he’s not bringing in anyone Gary Kubiak doesn’t sign off on. Wade Phillips had great influence on what they did in the draft and then free agency as well.

Looking at QB performances, forecasts

November, 28, 2011
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The AFC South saw some truly horrible quarterbacking Sunday.

In Jacksonville and Indianapolis, respectively, Blaine Gabbert and Curtis Painter had the sort of bad days we’ve become accustomed to as their teams lost.

Matt Hasselbeck struggled but found a big play at the end that helped the Titans win.

T.J. Yates really didn’t do much for Houston once he stepped in for Matt Leinart, who did well at not making mistakes and finding one big play before he got hurt.

Here’s a breakdown of AFC South quarterbacking Sunday, with QBR (and rank for the day) as well as passer rating.


Passer rating maxes out at 158.3; QBR goes to 100.

For a game, QBR can be interpreted as a percentile, so a score of 80 means a QB’s performance was better than 80 percent of all QB games.

McCown didn’t qualify for a QBR as he didn’t have 15 action plays.

Moving forward:
  • I fully expect Yates to start for Houston and struggled to understand the calls for a veteran with experience. If Donovan McNabb or Sage Rosenfels were any good, they’d be playing. (And either of those guys would have to be released and claimed to find their way to the Texans.) If Daunte Culpepper or even Brett Favre were any good, they’d be in the league. No, we don’t know about Yates; he’s young, inexperienced and has been a No. 3 until last week. But why so many of us have to jump to alternatives just because they are more familiar is hard for me to understand.
  • The Jaguars need to decide if they think Gabbert is best served by playing against San Diego on Monday night or if a week off might be more of a help. I expect him to start.
  • The Colts couldn’t be any worse with Dan Orlovsky at quarterback. Why not give him a shot?
  • Hasselbeck isn’t yielding to Jake Locker as long as Tennessee is in the hunt, and the Titans remain very much in the wild-card chase.

RTC: Calling for Del Rio's dismissal

November, 28, 2011
11/28/11
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Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

The fifth consecutive win was a team record, but it came with a price says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Now with T.J. Yates set to be quarterback, they’ll need the run game and defense more than ever.

Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle says: “The Texans (8-3), who are tied with the Ravens and Patriots for the best record in the AFC, have too much potential to be put in the hands of (Kellen) Clemens. You don’t give a scrub off the street the keys to your Ferrari. While Yates wouldn’t be the first choice of many to take the wheel either, he has such a head start on anybody who has been sitting at home watching games on television all season that he is the logical choice to handle the position … for now.” It’s not like there are a lot of alternatives at this point.

Connor Barwin recorded a franchise-record four sacks as the Texans got to Jacksonville quarterbacks seven times, says McClain.

Says Judy Batista of The New York Times: “The door to the Texans’ future that opened with (Peyton) Manning’s injury is closing with each injury of their own. The balance of the Texans’ offense will disappear because even though Yates possesses a strong arm, it is hard to imagine that a coaching staff that used an ultraconservative offense for Leinart in the first half will open the playbook for Yates.”

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated see the Texans winning the division and fizzling in the playoffs.

Quick changes have been the story of the season for the Texans, says Jason Cole of Yahoo.

Indianapolis Colts

Yet again, the Colts couldn’t make enough plays to win, says Phil Richards of The Indianapolis Star. A late end-zone interception ended their chances at a win. They talked of being beyond frustrated at the same old story.

On a day the Colts honored Marvin Harrison, Manning recalled the privilege of throwing to him. Mike Chappell of the Star has Manning’s reaction and Harrison’s short speech. It’s too bad it all came in the midst of such a terrible season.

Watching Cam Newton you saw why high-caliber rookie quarterbacks need to play right away, says Bob Kravitz of the Star. It’s why Andrew Luck will have to play right away for the Colts next season. I see the case for it, of course, but teams are allowed to sit a high-quality rookie behind a high-quality veteran if they like.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Maurice Jones-Drew called six points on offense ridiculous as he reviewed the Jaguars’ loss to Houston, according to Tania Ganguli of the Times-Union. The defense did its part in a loss that goes on the offense and special teams.

Says Gene Frenette of the T-U; “One thing you have to admit about Jack Del Rio’s Jaguars this season: when they latch on to a losing formula, they don’t know how to let go of it.” It’s time for Del Rio to be let go, the columnist writes.

Blaine Gabbert was pulled from the loss to the Texans, but remains the starter, says Vito Stellino of the T-U. But Rio left himself wiggle room with Luke McCown, saying Gabbert’s the guy until the coach says otherwise.

Frenette’s report card.

Tennessee Titans

A fourth-down touchdown connection between Matt Hasselbeck and Damian Williams saved the Titans' season for now, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. The biggest play of the season capped the most important drive.

The Titans rediscovered their run-game magic in their win over Tampa Bay, says John Glennon of The Tennessean. Chris Johnson’s best game of the season had a different look and feel than his other two 100-yard games this season.

To get a playoff spot, the Titans must break out of the win-one, lose-one pattern they’ve been following, says David Climer of The Tennessean.

A combined nine turnovers on a wet day in Nashville made for a very sloppy game, says Glennon.

Wyatt’s report card.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars very likely have a coaching change coming. Their GM isn’t under contract for next season. They pulled their rookie starting quarterback in the course of Sunday’s 20-13 loss to Houston that dropped their record to 3-8.

So how do they hold things together moving forward for five more games?

[+] EnlargePaul Posluszny
John Raoux/AP PhotoLinebacker Paul Posluszny says the Jags will still play hard throughout the remainder of the season.
“A lot of things are going against us right now, that’s for sure,” said veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny, whose high-level play continued with seven tackles and a forced fumble. “But for this team, we’ve still got to be able to compete til the very end. We’re professionals, we’re going to act like it, we’re going to do our job to the best of our abilities regardless of the situation.”

Jack Del Rio pulled Blaine Gabbert in favor of Luke McCownwith roughly 7 minutes left in the game, searching for a spark. A coach who seemingly passed the buck to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter a week ago for poor play-calling and clock management at the end of last week’s loss in Cleveland said this move was all his.

The Jaguars pulled within a score, but couldn’t convert a fourth-and-2 at the Houston 40 with 1:16 left.

Del Rio indicated Gabbert is his starting quarterback until he says otherwise, but of course, he could say otherwise at any time.

“When he was called on, he went in there and gave us a spark,” Del Rio said of McCown.

Gabbert made some good throws and led a great second-quarter drive with consecutive passes of 31 yards to running back Maurice Jones-Drew, 25 yards to rookie receiver Cecil Shorts and 14 yards to Marcedes Lewis. But then from the 3, they couldn’t punch it in as Lewis dropped an easy touchdown.

Perhaps only on a subconscious level the Jaguars deflated after the resulting field goal that put them ahead 10-7, and the Texans got better.

Jacksonville didn’t have a drive longer than eight plays after that. Eight of their 10 subsequent possessions ended with a punt, a turnover or on downs.

“It’s a tough situation for him,” Posluszny said of Gabbert. “Blaine is our guy. He’s the quarterback. He’s the quarterback of the future for this team. Obviously he didn’t play as well as he wanted to, so they made a switch.”

Gabbert and McCown combined to be sacked seven times, with four coming from Texans outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who made it a tough day for right tackle Guy Whimper. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Jaguars' quarterbacks were under duress on 18 of 49 dropbacks (36.7 percent). That number was 25.9 percent for the season coming into the game. Duress is either forced to move from the pocket, throwing motion altered due to pressure or a defender had a clear path in the quarterback's line of sight.

Maurice Jones-Drew said he and everyone on offense took the quarterback change personally.

“When they pull your quarterback, they are saying something about you,” he said. “We have to continue to work to get better.”

Gabbert had a post-game demeanor befitting a guy who had a bad day and was benched. McCown said the 10th overall pick in the draft has a great willingness to work hard to get improve.

"He's growing, he's getting better," McCown said. "We've just got to hang with him."

That was conveyed to Gabbert.

“I think it’s why we are all here, I think it’s why we are all in the NFL,” he said. “We worked hard to get here and we’re working hard to stay here.”
Matt HasselbeckJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck had problems connecting with his receivers and ended the day with a 72.0 rating.
PITTSBURGH -- The angry words built up in a somber locker room, and reserved players contemplating an awful loss started to spit them out.

The Tennessee Titans were “disgusted” over their 38-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. They were ticked off that they “got kicked around" and were recipients of “an old-fashioned butt whooping.”

“They kicked our butts and we kicked our own butts,” defensive end Dave Ball said, referring to a scene where Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up in a bathroom in the movie “Liar Liar." "It was a perfect s--- storm."

But Ball and others who so eloquently discussed the result were quick to sandwich it with resolve regarding the potential for it to be duplicated.

“You’re not going to see this Titans team again,” Ball said. “I guarantee that. You’re not going to see the same thing happen again.”

Tennessee is 3-2 heading into its bye, and with Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis all dropping games too, the Titans didn’t lose any ground in the AFC South standings.

“That’s good,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

That’s about all that’s good from the day.

A look at three elements of the disaster:

The start: Tennessee marched 69 yards on 13 plays on a game-opening drive but stalled badly in the red zone with two penalties, an incomplete pass and a sack.

Rob Bironas' 29-yard field goal felt like a win for the Steelers, and when Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to midfield, things really started to lean in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“After that we really stalled,” Hasselbeck said. “We didn’t look like we looked on the first drive.”

The Titans' next five series produced two first downs and 49 yards. It was 28-3 by the time they put together another effective drive.

The timing was off, with Hasselbeck frequently throwing behind guys -- some of it inaccuracy, some of it bad communication or lingering unfamiliarity. The team was in two-minute drive mode starting with its second drive of the second half.

“I just have more questions than answers right now,” Hasselbeck said.

Coach Mike Munchak didn't like the idea that a field goal instead of a touchdown was that big a letdown at the start.

"I hope we're not going to go into the tank because we got held to three points instead of seven," he said.

It wasn't the only reason but it helped.

Ben Roethlisberger: Cornerback Cortland Finnegan knew the Titans were thoroughly outplayed, but the corner who picked Roethlisberger's one really bad pass raised his eyebrows in surprise when he was told the Steelers' quarterback threw five touchdowns.

Coming into Pittsburgh, the Titans had faced Luke McCown, Joe Flacco, Kyle Orton and Colt McCoy. Hardly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks.

The Steelers smartly adjusted their offense for their quarterback, who has a sprained left foot. He didn’t hold the ball for a long time and scramble around like he typically does. He got rid of it pretty quickly while benefiting from some max protection that aided a beat-up line.

In such circumstances, the defense then needs to keep things in front of it, hit pass-catchers quickly and limit first downs.

The Titans didn’t.

“They used a different game plan than last week against the Texans,” end Jason Jones said. “They were going to max protect or they were going to get it out quick. We had our opportunities to get to him and didn’t. But it was dink and dunk and max protect.”

Rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had the Titans' lone sack.

Special teams: The Steelers crushed the Titans with that big kickoff return from Brown and a fake punt where Daniel Sepulveda threw a 33-yard pass to Ryan Mundy.

Even when the Titans did good things on special teams, they turned bad.

The Titans recovered a third-quarter onsides kick after cutting the lead to 28-10, but Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel got a piece of Hasselbeck’s throw on the very next play and LaMarr Woodley picked it off. When linebacker Tim Shaw blocked a Sepulveda punt in the fourth quarter, Finnegan returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. But an illegal block in the back call against Jamie Harper wiped away the score.

“It’s a three-phase game, and special teams we’ve got to pick it up,” said linebacker Gerald McRath. “We’ve definitely got to pull our weight. We let the team down.”

Moving forward ...

The Titans pulled off a 3-1 first-quarter record after dropping their opener with a lousy performance in Jacksonville. Hasselbeck said they hope to match it in the season's second quarter. They'll have to win three in a row at home after their bye to do so: against Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

That good start began to create some hype, and the Titans said they hadn’t bought in. But if any self-satisfaction had crept in anywhere, the Steelers snuffed it out.

“I just feel that you can feel people patting you on the back and that’s not what helps you win games,” Hasselbeck said. “I think typically what helps you in games is hard work and feeling like you’ve got something to prove and feeling like you’ve got to give everything you’ve got.

“I’m just slow to accept that stuff.”

After this dud, you can see why that’s the safe route.

To have a rookie running another team's plays as the scout team for the benefit of the defense seems wasteful.

A) He doesn’t have the experience to give the defense a great look and; B) He’s not learning anything about his own team’s offense while running another team’s plays.

I give Jack Del Rio huge credit for coming up with a system that’s been far more beneficial to Blaine Gabbert through the first two weeks of the season. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter spelled it out for the Jacksonville media Thursday.
“The way we’re doing it this year on scout team is different than we’ve done it in the past. In past years on offense and defense when we did the scout teams, you hold up a card that the other side of the ball drew and you’re saying, ‘Run this play off this card.’ This year Coach Del Rio came up with the plan to, we’re actually not carding anything on the scout team. So for the last two weeks when our scout team’s been going instead of a random defense coach holding up a card, they’ve been giving me a list of what they want. I’ve been putting the plays in or terminology and then I’ve been coaching Blaine. So instead of those 50 reps a day that he was taking on scout team for the last two weeks, we’ve been making those assimilate the best we could to our game plan. Not just because of that but I think just because of playing in the preseason, Blaine has taken a major jump in the last two weeks. I think his understanding of, ‘Hey, we’re in the season. It’s a full-time job.’ He’s got a great mentor in Luke [McCown] in how to prepare and he has taken a big jump and it has shown in practice. And I thought when it got into game, when we got down in the fourth quarter Coach Del Rio and I spoke and said, ‘This is a good time to get him some live chances in an NFL game,’ and I thought he handled himself well.”

It’s a significant change of something usually looked at as written in stone. Usually the offense is reviewing the last period or getting ready for the next period during a defensive practice period.

“Now what we’re doing is whoever the scout team quarterback is, I’m coaching him, all the offensive coaches are coaching their guys and Coach [Mike] Sheppard is taking the other quarterback and working with him just on some individual type stuff,” Koetter said. “I think it’s helped our team on both sides of the ball but I think especially it helped the young quarterback.”

I think it amounts to a clever way to add value to practice and I applaud Del Rio for coming up with it.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Arian Foster sat out Wednesday, says John McClain.

Jacoby Jones hurt his knee celebrating Andre Johnson’s touchdown catch in Miami, says Jeffrey Martin. When will guys learn on this?

Matt Schaub is preparing for the Saints’ blitz packages, say McClain and Martin.

Indianapolis Colts

Bill Polian is candid about his recent draft history.

The Colts' run game will face a stiff challenge against the Steelers, says Mike Chappell.

Five reasons why Colts fans shouldn’t dwell on Curtis Painter, from Phillip B. Wilson. I like No. 1.

Dick LeBeau’s schemes cause problems, says Phil Richards.

What went wrong on third downs against Cleveland? Nate Dunlevy investigates.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have decided it’s time to go with Blaine Gabbert, says Vito Stellino.

It’s not just about Gabbert, says Gene Frenette.

Dwight Lowery worked in front of Courtney Greene at safety, says Tania Ganguli.

While accepting his demotion, Luke McCown hopes for another chance, says Ganguli.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are recalling the Broncos' barbs, says Jim Wyatt.

Chris Johnson missed Wednesday's practice with sore ribs and Kenny Britt was limited, say Wyatt and John Glennon.

The inevitable has arrived early in Jacksonville, and Jack Del Rio has told Blaine Gabbert he will start at quarterback for the Jaguars on Sunday in Carolina.

Luke McCown made it an easier choice than the team had hoped with an awful performance in the Jaguars’ loss to the New York Jets.

But in the big picture, sooner is better for Gabbert.

I heard Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff on The Dan Patrick Show yesterday talking about rookie quarterbacks. He suggested the era of high draft picks having to struggle out of the gate is past. Looking at the solid play of Andy Dalton and Cam Newton so far, one has to wonder if he’s right.

“I’m not in any way amazed by rookie quarterbacks in this league,” Dimitroff said. “There are some young quarterbacks who continue to impress. I think it’s great for team builders to know they can draft a quarterback and play them early.”

It seems like more guys are able to step in and play well.

Newton was the top overall pick to Carolina, Gabbert was 10th to Jacksonville and Dalton was 35th to Cincinnati.

Much has to do with what surrounded them. The Jaguars have worked hard to get a foundation set for a new quarterback to have a good framework around him.

Sunday we find out a bit about how strong the foundation is, and we get our first indication about how equipped Gabbert is to play well early. If his defense can fare a lot better than the Panthers' first two opponents have against Newton, that would be a big help, too.

AFC South Stock Watch

September, 20, 2011
9/20/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Luke McCown, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback: Pick the synonym for awful and it fits his game against the Jets: dreadful, horrendous, ugly. Four interceptions got him pulled in favor of rookie Blaine Gabbert, and now the Jaguars’ quarterback situation is up in the air. Whichever quarterback is in the huddle will be hoping for the return of tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf) and receiver Jason Hill (hip), who was unwise to question the hype surrounding Darrelle Revis in a week when he didn’t even play.

2. The Colts’ red zone offense: With Peyton Manning at the helm, this is an area where Indianapolis typically excels. Last season the Colts scored touchdowns on 67.9 percent of their possessions that crossed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. But as part of Sunday’s field-goal festival in the loss to Cleveland, the Colts moved four yards in six snaps in the red zone before kicking. Their lone red-zone touchdown came when the game had already been decided. Indianapolis’ defense isn’t good enough to make field goals stand up.

3. Pick a guy, Jacksonville Jaguars: The receivers are certainly candidates, as they did little against the Jets on McCown’s bad day. (And Hill embarrassed himself without even playing.) If safety Courtney Greene can be nudged out of the lineup for Chris Prosinski or Dwight Lowery, Greene may have made a case for the move with a poor game. And defensive end Aaron Kampman, who suffered a setback in his return from an ACL reconstruction, missed his second game and won’t play Sunday. The defense misses his leadership for sure.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Jim Brown/US PresswireMatt Hasselbeck successfully orchestrated a win against a tough Baltimore defense.
1. Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee Titans cornerback: Finnegan was excellent in the Titans' win over Baltimore with four tackles and three passes defended. He was consistently involved for Tennessee in a rebound effort that can’t be underestimated. And with the praise Mike Munchak has offered Finnegan, it sounds like his play so far is the culmination of his leadership during the lockout and a solid camp that featured a short, failed walkout in a contract dispute.

2. Jacoby Jones, Houston Texans receiver/ punt returner: He had an excellent catch on the sideline, tapping his feet to be in bounds, and three catches for 48 yards. His performance is a good contribution in an offense featuring Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. He also chipped in with an early 40-yard punt return that helped set the tone. On a day the team was without Kevin Walter, Jones did his part to make sure the team wasn’t lacking. Is he becoming more consistent?

3. Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee Titans quarterback: He keyed a solid offensive day against a Baltimore defense that teams struggle against. A week after he ended a disappointing loss in Jacksonville with a bad interception, he was very accurate. Though Chris Johnson couldn’t get going, the other elements Hasselbeck counted on when he signed in Tennessee came through. He wasn’t sacked and his pass catchers like Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Jared Cook made plays for him.

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