AFC South: Michael Crabtree
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.
The teams going in opposite directions will meet Sunday in London's Wembley Stadium in the second of two NFL games being played in the United Kingdom this season.
The 49ers (5-2) have won four games in a row -- and scored at least 31 points in each of those games -- since starting the season 1-2. The Jaguars are 0-7 and are the first team since the 1984 Houston Oilers to lose their first seven games by double digits.
That makes Sunday's game look like a giant mismatch, yet the Jaguars were 28-point underdogs to the Denver Broncos two weeks ago but lost by only 16 points -- and trailed by just two at halftime.
ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the matchup:
DiRocco: The 49ers used the read-option the most they have all season against Tennessee in Week 7. Will that be a bigger part of the offense again as the season progresses?
Williamson: Mike, I think it is going to be a week-to-week situation. The 49ers used the read-option seven times last week after using it a total of nine in the first six games. The 49ers saw they could exploit Tennessee's defense using it. I think we will see it again, but probably in more challenging games and only in certain situations, when the 49ers are confident it will work. We could maybe see it some in London, but I have a feeling it will be more like the first six weeks of the season.
Mike, if the 49ers do run a lot of read-option offense, do you think the Jaguars can handle it?
DiRocco: Probably not. The Jaguars are last in the NFL in rushing defense (153.3 yards per game) and have given up a league-high nine rushing touchdowns. The defense's biggest problem against the rush is that it has given up a lot of explosive plays. Jacksonville has allowed an NFL-worst 10 rushing plays of 20 or more yards. Stopping the read-option is assignment football and the Jaguars' ends have not been as disciplined as needed. For example, Oakland's Terrelle Pryor ran for 50 yards in Week 2, including a 27-yard run in which the entire defensive front bit on the inside fake.
Bill, the Jaguars have had trouble with tight ends all season and now they face Vernon Davis. Who is the last team that's shut him down how?
Williamson: Davis hurt his hamstring late in the Seattle game in Week 2. He was pretty well shut down in that game before getting hurt. He missed Week 3 against the Colts and then came back against the Rams. He's been good and he is healthy. If the Jaguars have trouble against tight ends, the 49ers will exploit it. Davis and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have a great chemistry going this season. The 49ers' coaching staff is great at exploiting weaknesses.
Mike, do you seeing this being a big problem for Jacksonville?
DiRocco: Absolutely. Tight ends have combined to catch 42 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns against Jacksonville this season. Depending on the defense called, the Jaguars will either have a safety or linebacker on the tight end. At times, the job has fallen to middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who is very good against the run but not fast or quick enough in pass coverage. The Jaguars won't use the approach New England did against New Orleans standout Jimmy Graham -- the Patriots put their best corner, Aqib Talib, on him -- so I'd expect Davis to have chances to exploit some matchups with linebackers on Sunday.
Speaking of exploitation, the Anquan Boldin trade looked like a steal in Week 1. How is it regarded now?
Williamson: Still, unabashed thievery. Sure, Boldin had 13 catches in the first week and a combined 21 catches in the following six. But the 49ers would be in trouble without Boldin. He had three circus catches at Tennessee and he's been the team's only reliable wide receiver with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out. The 49ers would not be 5-2 without Boldin.
Mike, do you think the Jaguars will keep him in check Sunday?
DiRocco: The Jaguars have done a solid job the past two weeks of playing umbrella coverage and making sure they don't give up deep throws. That does leave the short and intermediate routes open, though, and that's where Boldin thrives. He's a physical receiver and the Jaguars don't yet have the kind of personnel to match up with him. Coach Gus Bradley wants to build a secondary similar to the one he helped build in Seattle, which includes big, physical corners. The Jaguars still have work to do there, although rookie third-round pick Dwayne Gratz (5-foot-11, 201 pounds) is finally back from his high-ankle sprain.
The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.
After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.
San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.
Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?
Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.
Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?
Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.
How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?
Williamson: It would be inaccurate and na´ve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.
Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?
Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.
Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?
Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.
This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?
Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.
But the real win in the offseason is when no one gets hurt.
San Francisco could win the Super Bowl, but it’s an offseason loser having lost Michael Crabtree to an Achilles injury. Anthony McCoy is hardly the same caliber player, but Seattle lost him to the same injury.
The Texans will put running back Arian Foster on the shelf for the remainder of OTAs to make sure he’s ready for camp. He suffered a minor calf injury Tuesday. It's not a big concern, it's just prudent to sit him.
Colts receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and cornerback Greg Toler were held out of an OTA session Wednesday with minor hamstring and foot issues, respectively.
“This time of year we’re obviously going to err on the side of caution,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. “It was our decision to hold [Heyward-Bey] out. He probably could have gone, but we said, ‘Hey, chill. We’ll see how you feel tomorrow’ and put him back out there …
“They want to go. We have to protect those guys from themselves. They want to be a part of everything. Push him out there and force the issue with him, then have something serious happen this time of year would be not very smart on my part.”
A high percentage of injuries include a good percentage of bad luck.
And while coaches will be smart, there is only so much they can do.
“We create an atmosphere where we are as safe as can be,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “I really don’t think with the rules the way they are now there are not a lot of unnecessary things going on anymore where it’s overkill or too much time on the field. There is not a whole lot that you can do about some bad luck that can happen other than the usual stuff, stretching them, hoping for good luck.
“You can’t concern yourself with it other than just practicing smart.”
Wright’s got an NFL-best 19 receptions on third down, ahead of Welker (17) and those other four (16).
And of those 19 catches by Wright, 14 have created first downs, tied with Wayne for the most in the NFL.
I asked Matt Hasselbeck why he and Jake Locker have looked to Wright so much in big situations.
“Probably trust, I think,” Hasselbeck said. “Third down is where, as a quarterback, that’s when they bring all their exotic stuff, that’s where they game plan for you specifically and you in those situations go to somebody that you trust.
“I was actually not aware of Kendall getting so many balls. But in my past, usually third down you need it. It’s not a time to just give it anywhere, I mean you’ve got to have it.”
Wright has made some nice progress, but I feel like he’s still underachieving. His biggest attribute coming into the league was an ability to take a short pass and run a long way with it, and he’s not broken off that sort of play yet.
“It’s coming,” he said when I spoke with Wright on Wednesday. “I don’t know when. It could be this game. It could be next game. I honestly don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’m positive that it’s going to happen, that I can make a short pass into a big gain.”
Kendall Wright was the sort of receiver the Titans were still missing as they look to become a more modern offense.
I like the additions for the Jaguars and the Titans, and at this point I’d certainly expect both guys to have good careers.
But I think early expectations for the two are unreasonably high.
Blackmon, still unsigned, is unlikely to pop in, learn the offense and make a bunch of plays for Blaine Gabbert on Sept. 9 at Minnesota.
Wright, just signed, is unlikely to take Kenny Britt's place if Britt isn’t ready or is suspended for the Titans Sept. 9 game against New England and produce like Britt could.
A.J. Green's 1,000-yard rookie year last season was the first for a receiver since Michael Clayton's for Tampa Bay in 2004.
Julio Jones made a big debut too, falling just 41 yards short of 1,000.
But receiver isn’t a spot where even highly-rated rookies generally get plugged in and make monstrous, immediate impacts. Maybe Green and Jones signified some sort of switch. But at this point I’m still inclined to see them as the exceptions rather than rewriters of the rule.
Per Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats and Info, 16 first-round receivers who played as rookies in the last five years have averaged 44 catches, 615 yards and 3.8 touchdowns. That’s nice production from Green, Jones, Jonathan Baldwin, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Britt, Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn, Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Anthony Gonzalez -- but hardly phenomenal.
That’s as many catches as Mike Thomas had for the 2011 Jaguars.
It’s not far off the stat line of 2010 third-rounder Damian Williams for the 2011 Titans -- 45 catches, 592 yards and five TDs.
Can Blackmon and or Wright be impactful players for their teams this year?
It probably depends on your definition of impactful.
Comparably valued players have provided roughly three catches for 38 yards with a score once every four games in their first year in the league.
Certainly it’s possible Blackmon and Wright do more. Are they going to be Week 1 fantasy football MVPs because of the monster numbers they put up early?
If I was making a bet, it wouldn’t be on yes.
╗ Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: History at the spot.
No. 20: Houston Texans
No. 20 has produced productive players in the last five years. Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew did reasonably well as a rookie. Tampa Bay corner Aqib Talib has nine picks in his first two years. Aaron Ross missed the bulk of his third season with a hamstring injury. Tamba Hali has a very respectable 27 sacks in four seasons. Dallas end Marcus Spears had only 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2009. Quality defensive backs have been there two of the last three years and that may bode well for the Texans’ chances to address corner or free safety. Two of those No. 20 picks were acquired in trades.
No. 31: Indianapolis Colts
No. 31 has produced a running back (Chris Wells to Arizona in 2009), two defensive backs (Kenny Phillips to the Giants in 2008 and Kelly Jennings to Seattle in 2006), a tight end (Greg Olsen to Chicago in 2007) and a defensive tackle (Mike Patterson to Philadelphia in 2005). Phillips was on IR most of last year, while Jennings and Patterson, a high-motor interior guy, have played in every game of their careers. Olsen’s fit with new coordinator Mike Martz is a question. I don’t think history will tell us a lot about what the Colts, firm believers in best player available, will find or do.
No. 10: Jacksonville Jaguars
There should be and will be quality options at No. 10 for the Jaguars. Recent years saw the 49ers snatch receiver Michael Crabtree, the Patriots select linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Texans pluck defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, the Cardinals grab quarterback Matt Leinart and Detroit pick receiver Mike Williams. Williams busted hard. Leinart is about to take over the job as Arizona’s starter. Okoye is still young with upside. Mayo was defensive rookie of the year. Crabtree had an ugly holdout, but San Francisco has high expectations for him in his second year. How are trade possibilities? Houston and New England got their picks in deals.
It’s a coincidence for sure, but No. 16 has been spent on a defensive player for the last five years. The scorecard: linebacker Larry English to San Diego in 2009, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Arizona in 2008, tackle Justin Harrell to Green Bay in 2007, defensive back Jason Allen to Miami in 2006 and tackle Travis Johnson to Houston in 2005. The Titans will probably be fine extending the trend, as their biggest concerns are with rebuilding a defense that needs an end, a corner and could benefit from additions at safety and linebacker too.
The suggestion from mdcady80: Although Addai's throw to Wayne was indeed a game changer, the sack on Smith afterwards was much bigger. Alex Smith was leading a counter charge midway through the 4th quarter, leading the 49ers past midfield. On 3rd down, Smith goes back for a pass, and gets sacked by Dwight Freeney, taking them out of field goal range and giving Manning 5 minutes to wind the game down. If the 49ers pick up the first down, momentum builds and a field goal or touchdown is almost certain. The colts didn't get as much pressure as they would have liked, but that sack was very timely and changed the course of the game.”
The sack was actually by Robert Mathis and it wasn’t San Francisco’s last possession, but it was a giant play nonetheless.
The situation: San Francisco ball, third-and-2 from the Indianapolis 35-yard line with 11:49 to go in the game and the Colts ahead 18-14.
The 49ers line up three wide with Isaac Bruce wide left, Josh Morgan in the slot left and Michael Crabtree wide right. Vernon Davis is a couple yards off the left tackle, standing up. Frank Gore is to the right of Alex Smith, who’s in the shotgun.
The Colts have nickel personnel on the field.
What I saw unfold after the snap:
Linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session, who had crept close to the line of scrimmage before the snap, both peel out to help in coverage, Brackett with Jerraud Powers on Davis, Session to the middle.
Defensive tackle Raheem Brock also drops back into coverage, leaving a three-man rush with right end Freeney, tackle Eric Foster and left end Mathis.
Foster is single blocked by center Eric Heittmann and doesn’t gain any ground.
Freeney draws a double team from left tackle Barry Sims and left guard David Baas, who give ground but do well to stave him off.
Mathis puts a spectacular spin move on right tackle Adam Snyder, acting as if he’s going to rush inside and going from Snyder’s right shoulder to beating him outside his left shoulder in the blink of an eye. Gore runs through the line where Mathis started, offers no blocking help, turns to the right flat and doesn't get there quickly enough to be of service.
Smith drops three steps from where he takes the shotgun snap, and by the time he sets, Mathis is just two yards and one step to the side away. He gets a hand on Smith’s shoulder, another on his waist and drags him down for an eight-yard loss.
Result: The sack takes the 49ers out of field goal range in their only foray into Colts’ territory in the second half.
Ultimate outcome: Indy’s offense runs 17 of the game’s remaining 24 plays as the Colts hold on to remain perfect at 7-0.
Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:
|Fernando Medina/US Presswire|
|The Colts can expect to see a lot of Steven Jackson in Week 7.|
Could there be complacency on the Colts' part after the bye? Considering the level of competition Indianapolis faces this week, this is a legitimate question. But considering the level of excellence within the Colts organization, I contend that a letdown is very unlikely -- especially with Peyton Manning at the controls. This could be the week to get the running game rolling though and I wouldn't be surprised to see a Donald Brown coming out party, which just might signify the changing of the guard at the Colts' running back position. Joseph Addai should still have a significant role going forward, but I contend that Brown is the better player and the lead job should be his. This might just be the week that he makes that happen.
Who are the playmakers to fear on the 49ers? Vernon Davis has been playing great and looks to have made a substantial step up in his career under Mike Singletary. He is extremely fast for a tight end and is capable of getting behind the defense for a big play. However, Houston has been very strong in defending opposing tight ends. The other receiver who needs mentioning is, of course, Michael Crabtree who is making his NFL debut in Houston. I have a hard time believing that Crabtree is in top-notch football shape. After running numerous routes and blocking in the run game, which is required in San Francisco, I would expect fatigue to set in at some point. He probably will only run a handful of different routes. Still, he is going to play and even without NFL seasoning, he is very capable of beating any member of Houston's secondary and making a big play.
Can Houston equal the 49ers' level of physicality? That is what Singletary preaches -- to be the most physical football team on the field on both sides of the football. While I do concede that San Francisco is more physical than Houston overall, the Texans did show me a lot last week in Cincinnati with their run-stopping prowess. The Texans could stand to do a much better job of moving defensive bodies out of the trenches however and if they are unable to get a consistent push this week, Patrick Willis will have a field day against Steve Slaton and Houston's struggling rushing attack.
How do the Texans' playmakers stack up with San Francisco's cover men in the passing game? Matt Schaub is playing at a very high level right now and his numbers over the past four games are out of this world. Obviously Andre Johnson has an awful lot to do with that, but so does Owen Daniels, who has become a consistent matchup nightmare and Slaton, who is very adept in the screen game. The good news for Houston is that opposing wide receivers have been doing a lot of damage to the San Francisco secondary, but on the other hand, the 49ers have been very stout against tight ends. Still, I like Houston's chances if Daniels is one-on-one with any of the 49ers' linebackers or safeties. Maybe this is the week that Kevin Walter breaks out of his slump and Jacoby Jones is quite dangerous. Nate Clements has been playing quite well for the most part, but Roddy White had a huge day in Week 5 and the San Francisco secondary must tackle better as a whole.
|Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire|
|Where can Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher and the Titans find a win along the way?|
In Week 6, the New England Patriots pounded the winless Tennessee Titans 59-0. In all honesty, watching the game film might be worse for the 0-6 Titans than the loss itself.
When can the Titans win their first game in the 2009 season? Surely Tennessee will not go winless this year, right? Hey, you never know. Anything can happen in this league. Coach Jeff Fisher's mighty Titans, 13-3 overall last season, have fallen.
Let's take a look at the games left on the Titans' schedule and see what their chances are of getting that elusive first win. Mercifully, Tennessee has a bye in Week 7.
Week 8 vs. Jacksonville
Current record: 3-3
Chance of Titans winning: 45 percent
How can the Titans win? They have two weeks to prepare. They are at home. And simply put, Jacksonville isn't a very good football team, especially on defense. But, the Jaguars did throttle the Titans in Jacksonville in Week 4 and they will be coming off a bye themselves.
Week 9 at San Francisco
Current record: 3-2
Chance of Titans winning: 25 percent
How can the Titans win? Eliminating the run is something that Tennessee might be able to accomplish. If they do, the Niners will have a difficult time putting points on the board. On the other hand, this game screams "Michael Crabtree coming out party."
Week 10 vs. Buffalo
Current record: 2-4
Chance of Titans winning: 45 percent
How can the Titans win? Are the Bills really that much better than Tennessee? The Titans' 2008 recipe for winning, controlling the clock and keeping games close, might actually work against the hapless Bills.
Week 11 at Houston
Current record: 3-3
Chance of Titans winning: 25 percent
How can the Titans win? This one doesn't look good at all for the Titans as we stand today. Start Matt Schaub -- and all his potential receivers -- on your fantasy team in Week 11. Chris Johnson would have to absolutely blow up for Tennessee to have any chance.
Week 12 vs. Arizona
Current record: 3-2
Chance of Titans winning: 25 percent
How can the Titans win? They can. But they won't. Arizona doesn't travel well, but the Cardinals really can throw the football. Needless to say, the Titans can't stop anyone's passing attack.
Week 13 at Indianapolis
Current record: 5-0
Chance of Titans winning: 10 percent
How can the Titans win? It is a divisional game, so there is a lot of familiarity here. But Peyton Manning potentially could challenge the numbers that Tom Brady posted this past weekend. Maybe the Colts have the division wrapped up and only play their starters half the game -- that is the only scenario I see for a Tennessee victory. A win isn't happening at Indy.
Week 14 vs. St. Louis
Current record: 0-6
Chance of Titans winning: 55 percent
How can the Titans win? It is hard to speculate that Tennessee will be considered the favorite in any game they play this year, but having the hapless Rams at home could fit that bill. Still, there are actual signs of improvement in St. Louis, which is more than Jeff Fisher's club can say.
Week 15 vs. Miami
Current record: 2-3
Chance of Titans winning: 40 percent
How can the Titans win? This could happen. It is being played in Tennessee and one thing that the Titans do well is stop the run. If Miami can't run, the Dolphins become very vulnerable.
Week 16 vs. San Diego
Current record: 2-2 (entering play Oct. 19 on "Monday Night Football" )
Chance of Titans winning: 25 percent
How can the Titans win? I love the Titans' chances of running the ball down San Diego's throats. But, I love Philip Rivers' chances of lighting up the scoreboard through the air even more.
Week 17 at Seattle
Current record: 2-5
Chance of Titans winning: 25 percent
How can the Titans win? Well, there certainly is a chance that both Tennessee and Seattle are out of playoff contention by Week 17 and frankly, strange things happen during the final week of an NFL season. The Titans' defensive line may just dominate the line of scrimmage against a makeshift Seahawks front.
The AFC South's overall success in 2008 came in good part to its interconference matchups. They were a collective 11-5 against the NFC North with no team worse than 2-2.
What awaits the division when it faces the NFC West this season?
Last year doesn't give us too much information, but at this point in time it's hard to say anything but the matchups look favorable. In 2008 the NFC West was a collective 20 games under .500 while the AFC South was 12 games over.
Here are seven interesting storylines or factors that will come into play in AFC South against NFC West this season.
1. Slowing top receivers: Teams in the AFC South are built on the thinking that they have to be able to matchup with some pretty good receivers. Yes, Marvin Harrison is gone, but Indianapolis still has Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzalez could evolve into a tough matchup. And the Colts, Titans and Jaguars know they have to try to slow the excellent Andre Johnson twice a season. Now the division also has to contend with Torry Holt. How does such defensive construction translate against a division featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Isaac Bruce and rookie Michael Crabtree?
2. Super rushers in big-time matchups: Preparing for the AFC South means preparing for a big-time edge rusher off the right side. Houston's Mario Williams, Indy's Dwight Freeney and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch are relentless in their quarterback pursuit. Their matchups with Seattle's Walter Jones and San Francisco's Joe Staley should be something to see, and the ability or inability of Arizona's Mike Gandy and St. Louis' Alex Barron to slow them will be critical storylines in those games. And are AFC South left tackles assigned to stop those big rushers in two games a year -- Michael Roos, Tra Thomas/Eugene Monroe, Tony Ugoh and Duane Brown -- also equipped to handle Justin Smith, Chris Long and Bertrand Berry?
|Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI|
|The Colts' Peyton Manning could have big days against the NFC West's pass coverages.|
3. Unfamiliar defenses vs. Peyton Manning: No, rank against the pass isn't a tell-all stat. But St. Louis ranked 19th against the pass last year, and that was tops among NFC West teams. The Rams, 49ers (20th), Cardinals (22nd) and Seahawks (32nd) are going to have to show they're much better and can be resourceful if they have a chance to minimize the damage inflicted by Manning. Otherwise, he may well pick them apart.
4. Getting to know Jim Mora: Mora is the new coach of the Seahawks. None of the AFC South teams played against the Mora-coached Atlanta Falcons teams in the regular season while he coached that franchise from 2004-06. But Jeff Fisher's 1999 Titans lost to a San Francisco team that had Mora as its defensive coordinator. The Jaguars beat the Niners that same year on opening day, but don't have a player or coach left from that team, so aren't likely to find any help in it. Indy will have a little organizational recall of Mora's defense from a loss to the 49ers in 2001. The AFC South doesn't have a lot to go on, either, as it prepares to face three other coaches who have not been with their teams long. Fisher does know Mike Singletary -- they were teammates on the Bears.
5. How will two teams from the Eastern
time zone and two from the Central travel West: Including the playoffs, AFC South teams are 5-16 in games at Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, San Diego and Oakland since realignment in 2002. That includes 0-7 for the Titans, whose playoff fate could come down their first trip to Qwest Field, a Jan. 3 regular-season finale.
6. Will the Cardinals draw in North Florida: Things are not looking good for the Jaguars in the ticket sales department, and a visit by St. Louis combines with home games against Kansas City, Buffalo and Miami outside the division to make for a less-than-stellar slate to market. But the defending NFC Champion Cardinals are in Jacksonville on Sept. 20. If the combination of the Jaguars' home opener and Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin coming to town doesn't produce a buzz and a sellout, it won't bode well for what's ahead.
7. Battle of the rookie running backs: Colts president Bill Polian once passed on Ricky Williams in favor of Edgerrin James, and came out looking very smart. In April, with Knowshon Moreno long gone, Polian tabbed Donald Brown ahead of Beanie Wells. This season the Colts head to Arizona Week 3 and will use Brown against a team that took the back Polian passed on in the first round. The Cardinals preferred Brown to Wells as well. Here we get close looks at both the backs from late in the first round in a game pitting the teams many rate as the favorites in these two divisions.
The AFC South will get some early looks at some of the skill-position guys who've been taken in the first half of the NFL draft.
And the whole division will get to see and defend receiver Michael Crabtree, who somewhat surprisingly lasted until San Francisco took him at No. 10. The 49ers play at Houston and at Indianapolis, while hosting Tennessee and Jacksonville this season.
Another first-round quarterback, Josh Freeman, went to Tampa Bay at No. 17.
He'll likely see his first action as a pro at Nashville's LP Field in the Bucs' preseason opener on Aug. 15 and will be in-line for some more work against the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Aug. 22.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Receivers Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin may wind up being NFL superstars. But from the day he got the job, Jaguars GM Gene Smith has talked about building from the inside out.
History suggests the Jaguars are a lot less likely to miss on offensive tackle Eugene Monroe than they would have been choosing a receiver, and surely their recent history of first-round failure at wideout was an influence.
Monroe doesn't have to be Jacksonville's left tackle on opening day Sept. 13 at Indianapolis. They signed veteran Tra Thomas as a buffer. Perhaps this puts incumbent right tackle Tony Pashos on notice. If Monroe is good in the preseason, might the Jaguars start him out on the right as he gets his NFL bearings, with plans to flip him to the other side in a year or two?
The Jaguars need to protect David Garrard better and give him better weapons to throw to. Without the time someone like Monroe can help give him, the people running the routes may not matter as much.
Jacksonville can sell this as a substance-over-style move.
And if the receiver market continues to be slower than anticipated, perhaps they still land a top-flight prospect with the seventh pick of the second round, 39th overall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Greg in Chicago writes: Been a while since I read the blog. In re: Young, Cutler, etc... congratulations. You join every generation before yours in believing that those younger than you feel entitled.
Paul Kuharsky: Point taken. I just turned 40 and find myself saying, "Kids today..." too often. Nevertheless, I stand by the opinion. Jay Cutler, Vince Young and Matt Leinart don't strike me as guys who came into the league hell-bent on earning their way and proving their worth with hard work.
Garrison in Indianapolis writes: If Edge gets released in Arizona, any chance the Colts bring him back? Given Addai's ineffectiveness since halftime of the '07 Patriots game, Edge would probably feel like he could have the chance to start or heavily contribute in a backfield committee a la Rhodes and Addai in '06. He still maintains friendships with a lot of the players on the team and his relationship with management is nice enough that he has a Colts Super Bowl ring.
Paul Kuharsky: Possible if he'd do it for cheap. His friendships with other players on the team are irrelevant in this scenario. And if the Colts draft a back, I think they'll probably consider the position addressed. Bill Polian indicated Friday he likes the crop he already has.
Kobe in Newport writes: will the jaguars still pursue michael crabtree or jeremy maclin? or will they go after sanchez? I think that getting crabtree or maclin opens up all of the options for garrard and mo-jo. That would make the offense explosive and the defense has plenty of holes but it also has playmakers. Can you give me a prediction of the jags this coming year if they get maclin or crabtree?
Paul Kuharsky: The pick could be Crabtree or Maclin if they are there. I don't see them taking Sanchez, I see them trying to trade the spot to someone who wants Sanchez.
I still think they'd be the last-place team in the division. They have a lot of issues beyond receiver and it'll be hard to address them all with one draft.
Tobin in Denver writes: Reading through the blog mock draft, and I am shocked you would make the statement that Clay Matthews is a high-character athlete. This is the same Clay Matthews that created the group, "White Nation," which featured a graphic with the caption, "arrest black babies before they become criminals" on Facebook as a junior at USC. Whether a joke or not, this is not high-character and can not be brushed aside as being a stupid college kid not knowing the extent of his actions. I can't believe every sports media outlet disregards this fact. I hope some of his new non-white teammates give him a proper welcome to the NFL.
Paul Kuharsky: A fair point for sure and I should have been more careful with my wording there. I do believe, however, that Matthews is regarded by most scouts and teams as a good-character guy who did something very stupid, not as a guy with an incident in his past that suggests a future filled with more of them.
Brian in Jacksonville, Fla., writes: Would love your opinion on the new threads. To me the home jeresey looks a lot like the Eagles and the limited teal in the away is a bit confusing as Teal is supposed to be the primary. The biggest point of contention is the lack of gold in the uniform yet the logo uses it for shadow effect. I do think they look sleeker but as someone who thinks the Colts have a timeless look it is hard to fully grasp the think stripes over the thick ones.
Paul Kuharsky: I think simpler is better so I like what they've done and I don't mind the disappearance of the gold. I like the predictable home and away setup for a team without a lot of history or identity. I agree with you about the absence of teal in the road uniforms.
The pictures I've seen of the helmets haven't given me a true sense, I don't think. I worry the sparkle may make them look like the hoods of some of those Camaros from the early 80s. Look forward to seeing them in person at some OTAs in June.
Tom from Tempe, Ariz., writes: Would the jaguars have any interest in trading for a veteran like boldin? his physical style of play would do well for their offensive mindset, and as alot of people question his ability to separate from top level corners and double coverage, wouldn't the huge focus on the running game open him up alot? ... or does this scenario seem really unlikely - if they could even convince arizona to give him up.
Paul Kuharsky: No. The Jaguars are looking to stockpile picks, not deal them. If they trade two for Boldin, they've addressed wide receiver and killed their chances to effectively address a bunch of other spots like offensive line, defensive tackle and defensive back.
Andrew from parts unknown writes: With the draft this Saturday everyone is trying to fill holes left in their lineup. Who are the free agents which might fill some holes in the AFC south (especially my Texans)if the draft doesn't play out they want? I don't think this in particular would necessarily be good, but something like adding Rodney Harrison to the team to teach the young guys how to play better, add depth at a weak point and teach the team how to win when it is expected to (like against Oakland last year).
Paul Kuharsky: There are no major answers out there -- more role players, pieces and projects. Now some guys can get released after teams draft their replacements. Harrison to Houston could be intriguing, but I think they want to be younger.
But I don't believe in bringing in veterans with the objective of having them mentor. Mentoring is a nice additional bonus if they can play, but they have to be able to play. There are coaches in place to coach.
Zach in Blacksburg, Va., writes: I cannot fathom why David "Deacon" Jones is not on the list. He is arguably one of the greatest defensive ends in football history. He was drafted in the 16th round in the 14th round. Like Jerry Rice, who tops the list, he went to Mississippi Valley State (for one year). Anyone that makes an NFL team from this school is of hidden and/or underrated value. Jones not only made the LA Rams team; he made the LA Rams into a team. He is one of their greatest players of all time. As an end, he redefined the position and even contributed to football vocabulary with the term: sack. All in all, the list is good and helps show that the draft isn't over after the first round, and in the case of guys like
Jeff Saturday, the entire draft.
Paul Kuharsky: Zach is referring to this post about ESPN Stats & Information's list of the top draft values of all-time, and I chose his note to be representative of all the complaints I've gotten.
It's not a subjective list where we said "yes, yes, no, no" as we listed guys. It was the product of a specific formula created by ESPN Stats & Information -- which is thoroughly described in a box in the middle of the blog post. Based on thos criteria, the guys who didn't make the list didn't score higher than those who did.
Ben in Nashville writes: Paul, with the Falcons trading for Tony G. its beginning to look as if Brandon Pettigrew could possibly be around at 30. With Scaife being seemingly unhappy with his contract, would it not be smart to draft Pettigrew and possibly trade Scaife for a 2-4 round pick (not sure of his value)? The kid from Cal that they drafted last year seems to have limited upside and really is just another OL. Pettigrew seems to be a perfect fit for what the Titans do and is a top 15 talent in my opinion.
Paul Kuharsky: I don't think he's there at 30 -- and I agree with a recent post by NFC East mogul Matt Mosley that Philly should take him, not a running back.
If he is still on the board, it would not surprise me at all if the Titans took him.
They could carry Pettigrew, Scaife, Crumpler and Stevens this year without much issue, and be set for 2010 without Crumpler and Scaife. Or maybe they'd decide Crumpler is done in camp. Scaife is not under contract now, so he's untradeable. And once he signs the franchise deal, he's getting nearly $5 million, which people won't be anxious to trade for.
Harry in Nashville writes: Hey Paul, sorry I just missed you on the chat. Had a few questions for you though. Did VY seal his fate by making the comments about "just collecting his checks" earlier this week? Is it out of the realm of possibility that the Titans would draft a qb this year for the practice squad? Did Pacman end the chances of Percy Harvin becoming a Titan? If you were the GM would you take a CB, DE, or LB with the 1st pick?
Paul Kuharsky: Young's fate will be sealed by how he plays and acts, not by what he says in an interview.
You can't draft someone for the practice squad, anyone in the league could sign him away for his 53-man roster at any time.
If I'm the GM, I wait and see what's there. In the bloggers' mock I took Alphonso Smith.
If they don't fear Harvin -- and I believe they do -- they should.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
- Rick Gosselin's final mock draft.
- Jay Glazer's final mock draft.
- A 32 questions draft edition from Mike Silver.
- Mike Freeman lists 100 things he'd rather do than watch the draft.
- Jerome Solomon says Bob McNair and the Texans have gotten better at this.
- Players out of Texas taken high in the first round are hardly a sure thing, writes John McClain.
- Past picks at No. 15 have been more fizzle than sizzle, says McClain.
- McClain's final mock still has the Texans taking Clay Matthews.
- Lance Zierlein makes a couple trades in his mock.
- Bob Kravitz says this is when Bill Polian earns his money.
- Free-agent corner Keiwan Ratliff signed with the Steelers, says Mike Chappell.
- The Colts will watch a lot of things sort out before they get a sense of their possibilities at No. 27, writes Chappell.
- No. 2 and No. 1 on John Oehser's list of the top 25 picks of the Polian era. This was a great idea that gave us a lot to ponder over the last several weeks.
- Oehser reviews mock prognostications for the Colts.
- Curse insurance. Peyton Manning's not the Madden cover boy.
- June 6 is the day the Colts will hold an open practice at Franklin College. Tickets will be $10, says Oehser.
- Polian can pronounce Peria Jerry's name, points out Oehser.
- Oehser selects the best pick at each first-round spot for the Colts in their history.
- The moment of truth has arrived for Gene Smith, writes Vito Stellino.
- Peter King says the Jaguars turned down No. 23 and No. 47 from New England for No. 8.
- Michael C. Wright is sticking with B.J. Raji for the Jaguars in his final mock draft.
- A judge has been asked to revoke Jimmy Smith's bail, reports Jim Schoettler.
- Gene Frenette says Smith has slowed down the timetable to become part of the Pride of the Jaguars that honors their all-time greats.
- A look at the guy on the other end of the phone in New York, from Ryan Robinson of Jaguars.com.
- Smith won't be unprepared, says Vic Ketchman of Jaguars.com.
- Cole Pepper says it'll be Michael Crabtree at No. 8, and Malcolm Jenkins if the Jaguars trade back.
- The last four first-rounders were immediate contributors. Jim Wyatt asks whether the Titans continue the trend.
- The guys at the Tennessean make their picks and sample the national choices.
- Chuck Cecil isn't worried about the Titans replacing Albert Haynesworth, writes Jonathan Hutton.
- Joe Biddle would like to see the Titans with Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards.
- Wyatt runs through a mock draft done by a group of beat writers from around the country.