AFC South: Rob Gronkowski

Two QBs who can produce regardless

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The transition for one was more bumpy than smooth. His top receiver, his security blanket, the one who often found a way to get open no matter the situation, lay on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium slapping the ground almost three months ago.

The other has five Super Bowl appearances on his resume, but not even the future Hall of Famer could say things were easy right away without his go-to guy.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/AJ MastAndrew Luck overcame security blanket Reggie Wayne's absence by placing a priority on jelling with the other Colts receivers.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck overcame his early struggles of not having Reggie Wayne by working, and working some more, to develop continuity with his young receivers. New England quarterback Tom Brady's transition without tight end Rob Gronkowski started out shaky, too, but evened out as the season progressed.

Luck and Brady will be the marquee names in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game, and they're the reason why the two teams have reached this point. They've proven they can get the most out of their unproven receivers.

"[It's been] a challenge, but also an opportunity for guys," Luck said. "[They've] made the most of it. [Coach Chuck Pagano] tells us every week, 'Everybody prepares like a starter.' You never know, the injuries, whatever it is, it's an unfortunate part of the game."

LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers aren't names people immediately bring up when talking about the Colts' receiving corp. Brazill was suspended the first four games of the season. Whalen and Rogers spent most of the season on the practice squad. But there was Rogers going up and outleaping a Kansas City Chiefs' defender to bring in a 46-yard pass from Luck in the wild-card playoff game last Saturday.

Brady had Gronkowski, one of the league's best tight ends, for all of seven games before a knee injury ended his season.

Enter Julian Edelman.

Who? Exactly.

The 5-foot-10 went from having a career-high 21 receptions in 2012 to hauling in 105 passes -- good enough for fourth in the league -- for 1,056 yards this season.

"Obviously, [the Patriots] got a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in Tom Brady that is under center running that whole thing," Pagano said. "We've got guys that are athletic and guys that can make plays. They've got guys that are athletic and can make plays. They've done a good job of bringing guys in and plugging them in. That system has been in place. They make adjustments here and there. But he's done a great job with adjusting to life without Gronk, life without some of the other guys. It's going to be a huge challenge."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsWith Tom Brady under center and Rob Gronkowski out for the season with an injured knee, Julian Edelman stepped up.
It seems like there's a revolving door when it comes to the Patriots and their players. There's not too many Waynes or Marvin Harrisons, players who have spent their entire career with the same team, there. The Patriots have no problem replacing a player and bringing in somebody else, which is part of the reason why Brady always seems to be able to find a way to make things work.

"For me, over the course of playing a few years we lost certain guys at certain points in the year," Brady said. "I think the main thing is just to try to figure out what you need to do as an offense to still be productive. You can lose a tight end or receiver or running back at any point in any game, and no one really feels sorry for you at that point.

"Losing any player hurts on offense or defense, but you've still got to have enough guys on your team and have enough flexibility within your game plan to adapt and make the changes necessary so you can still be productive."

Luck and Brady both had built-in excuses if they struggled all season. Their competitive nature wouldn't allow it, though. It pushed them more.

They handle things in different ways -- Luck isn't one to be seen on camera going off on the sidelines during a game -- but one of the things they have in common is that they're demanding and expect the best out of their teammates.

Extra time in the film room. Extra passes before and after practice to ensure their timing is right. The conversations they have as they walk down the hallway at the facility.

Luck had to do those things to make sure he had somebody else to go to when T.Y. Hilton was not an option.

Luck had a relationship with Whalen because they were teammates at Stanford. Brazill and Luck were teammates as rookies, but the starting quarterback didn't have much to work with when it came to Rogers because most of his passes were thrown by backups Matt Hasselbeck and Chandler Harnish while on the practice squad.

Trust is a necessity between quarterback and receiver. Luck showed he had it in Rogers when the rookie caught six passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns Dec. 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"He does do a good job of staying on top of us," Rogers said. "We're like a family here and when something needs to be done, it's nothing personal. It's what we need to have done to win the game.

"We might be walking down the hall and he might grab you for a minute and talk about a play or talk about a certain concept. It's all day long, in the middle of practice, before practice, in meetings, in the film room."

Quick Take: Colts at Patriots

January, 5, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Three things to know about Saturday's Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. This will be the first playoff matchup between the two teams since the epic AFC Championship Game the Colts won 38-34 on Jan. 21, 2007.

1. Battle of receivers. Quick: Can you name a receiver on either team not named T.Y. Hilton? Andrew Luck of the Colts and Tom Brady of the Patriots are the two best quarterbacks in the league when it comes to getting the most out of their receivers. They both lost their primary receiving targets to injury this season. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne's season ended in Week 7 with a torn ACL. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's season ended with a torn ACL and MCL in Week 14. Receiver Julian Edelman led the Patriots in receiving this season with 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Hilton, who set a franchise playoff record with 224 yards against Kansas City on Saturday, led the Colts with 1,083 yards and five touchdowns this season.

2. Ugly first game. Luck is making his second appearance against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. New England beat Indianapolis 59-24 during the 2012 season. The Colts led 14-7 at the end of the first quarter and trailed only 24-17 at halftime, but the Patriots outscored them 35-7 in the second half. Luck was 27-of-50 for 334 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Brady was simply better, as expected. He was 24-of-35 for 331 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. But Brady won't have Gronkowski (137 yards) or Wes Welker (80 yards) to throw the ball to this time around. Hilton had six catches for 100 yards. Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman had 12 tackles in that game.

3. Stopping the run. Brady is obviously the focal point for the Patriots, but New England does have a decent running game, too. Running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount finished within a yard of each other during the regular season, with Ridley gaining 773 yards and Blount rushing for 772 yards. They also combined for 14 touchdowns. The Colts, on the other hand, had Donald Brown rush for 537 yards and Trent Richardson finished with 458 yards.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
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Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Houston Texans traded DeMeco Ryans after the 2011 season, and as they look to recover from a 2012 filled with injuries at inside linebacker, I’ve maintained that a one-dimensional position doesn’t require big attention. It can be easily filled.

Tom Gower of Football Outsiders and Reading and Thinking Football sees it as a bigger need. He argues, basically, that if the Texans had a better inside linebacker to go with Brian Cushing, they wouldn’t be so quick to get out of their base defense.

That versatility would be helpful and would give defensive coordinator Wade Phillips more options for how to, say, cover a tight end like Rob Gronkowski.

It’d be good if Phillips had extra alternatives, sure. The Patriots' quick-snapping offense gave the Texans all kind of troubles last season, twice. Perhaps if Houston could simply have stayed in base, we'd have seen less panic and more preparedness to match up with what New England does so well.

So what’s general manager Rick Smith think about an inside linebacker spot where injury-prone Darryl Sharpton is the primary option at this point?

“Obviously, you want the best players you can find, a guy that can stay on the field,” Smith said at the scouting combine. “You make a mistake if you try to limit yourself just to trying to fit a particular player in a particular role. I think what you try to do is you get the best football players and you let it sort itself out.”

If the team adds an inside backer who could be a three-down player, how much might Phillips change how he deploys his personnel?

“What I think is it gives him some options,” Smith said. “If we have two inside backers who can stay on the field in passing situations and match up better against [tight ends], I think that’s a positive. If he wants to employ a three-safety system in other situations, whether it’s longer distances or a blitz package or whatever it is, if he wants to employ those, he can. I think the more you have players who can stay on the field and impact the game, I think that’s the option, that’s the ultimate for him because it gives him the flexibility that he likes.”

There is one other possibility at play here.

If the Texans re-sign Connor Barwin, as they say they want to, then they’ll have Barwin, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus as outside linebackers.

Coach Gary Kubiak indicated they could look at Reed inside.

"He's very capable of being a stack player, playing inside in our 3-4,” Kubiak said. “Yes, that could happen. But we've liked him as a Sam, he's a heck of a Sam player. But you always have to have some flexibility with one player or two players in various situations when you come across like what we did last year.

“Depending on what happens with our football team moving forward right now, with Connor [Barwin] and some other things, we're always looking for some flexibility."

We’ll have to stay tuned.

But with or without Barwin, I expect the Texans will be adding a linebacker in free agency or the draft. The questions remain, with how much of an investment or with how high a pick?

RTC: Schaub wasn't good enough

January, 14, 2013
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

“The Texans were eliminated in the divisional round because they didn’t make enough plays when they needed them, made too many mistakes at the worst time, failed to take advantage of opportunities, and consistently failed on third down,” says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

The way Matt Schaub played in December and January will not get it done, says Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle.

Given the limited choices of Super Bowl or bust, the Texans wound up with B, says Randy Harvey of the Chronicle.

The lack of third-quarter execution stopped the Texans from completing a momentum shift, says Dale Robertson of the Chronicle.

Even without Rob Gronkowski again, the Patriots offense steamrolled the Texans, says Don Banks of SI.com.

The Patriots reminded the Texans who the boss is in the AFC, says Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com.

The gap between the Patriots and Texans only widened, says Nancy Gay of Fox Sports.

The Chronicle’s notebook: Danieal Manning did well returning kicks, Rick Dennison thought his meeting with the Bears went well, inconsistency plagued the Texans offense and other notes from the Chronicle.

Owner Bob McNair thinks the Texans need more depth to take the next step, says Tania Ganguli of the Chronicle.

Receiver DeVier Posey’s got a torn Achilles, says Ganguli.

J.J. Watt explains his pregame spitting “controversy,” from Ganguli.

Wes Welker let his play speak for him, says Seth Lakso for the Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts

Jim Irsay’s decisions to change things proved awfully smart, says Michael Marot of the Associated Press.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars will have to wait on the 49ers playoff run to talk to offensive coordinator Greg Roman about their head coaching job, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

CFL quarterback Mike Reilly recently worked out for the Jaguars, says O’Halloran.

Tennessee Titans

New Jersey police want to talk to Kenny Britt about an incident in which a close friend was stabbed, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Wyatt says Mike Munchak wants to lure Sherman Smith back to Tennessee to coach running backs.

Alan Lowry may have lost his job as special teams coach because of a perception that players had begun tuning him out, says Wyatt.

Final Word: Texans at Patriots

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
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NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Houston Texans' divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsArian Foster is 90 yards shy of Terrell Davis' rushing record of 515 yards for a player's first four postseason games.
Play-action influence: Per ESPN Stats & Information, when using play-action, Matt Schaub's yards per attempt average on passes deeper than 10 yards downfield (15.5) ranks fourth in the league. On those same throws without play-action fakes, Schaub’s yards per attempt (10.4) ranks 14th, and only four quarterbacks have a worse touchdown-interception differential than Schaub (minus-2). Everyone knows Arian Foster and the run game get this offense going. He has been great in three playoff games allowing play-action to work. His 425 rushing yards are the most ever by a player in his first three playoff games. He needs 91 in this game to surpass Terrell Davis' record for rushing yards in a back’s first four playoff games. Foster has averaged 2.7 yards per rush before first contact this season, but was unable to find space to run in most of the Texans' losses. He averaged 1.9 yards in those losses, including 1.6 against the Patriots, compared with 2.9 yards in wins.

Tight ends: Texans strong safety Glover Quin was responsible for shutting down Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham last week (though Gresham did have two critical drops). Tight ends have been targeted 124 times this season against the Texans, tied for fourth most in the league, but Houston has been successful defending them everywhere except the end zone. Opponents completed 58 percent of their passes to tight ends (second-best defensive percentage in the league), 6.3 yards per attempt (third) and got a first down 34 percent of the time. But tight ends caught 11 touchdowns against Houston, tied for 31st among defenses. On the other side of the ball, the Texans have used multiple tight ends on 72 percent of their plays this season (excluding spikes and kneel downs). It’s the first time since New England drafted Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski a team other than Patriots finished with the highest use of multiple-tight end formations. Even with Hernandez and Gronkowski both missing games this season, the Patriots used multiple tight ends on 49 percent of their plays (fifth highest).

No time: Tom Brady has had the quickest release in the NFL this season. ESPN Stats & Information says he held onto the ball on average for 3.03 seconds from the snap until either the pass, sack or scramble attempt. Brady was able to pass 25 times within 3.0 seconds of the snap in Week 14 against the Texans, completing 68 percent of those throws with three touchdowns. The Texans have to force him to hold it longer. If he has the ball for at least three seconds, his completion percentage drops from .720 to .410 and his yards per attempt drop from 8.1 to 6.4. Brady went 13-of-19 with three touchdowns against five or more pass-rushers in Week 14 against the Texans.

The Reed effect: Texans linebacker Brooks Reed missed the Week 14 blowout loss to the Patriots with a groin injury. Reed’s presence has provided a boost to the Texans’ defense this year. With him on the field, they’ve given up 4.8 yards per play, 6.2 yards per pass, 3.9 yards per rush and a rushing touchdown every 215 plays. Without him, it has been 5.5 yards per play, 7.3 yards per pass, 4.2 yards per rush and a rushing touchdown every 43.5 plays.

Also: The Texans, Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are the same final four in the AFC as last year. The Elias Sports Bureau says this is the first time ever the same four teams reached the divisional playoffs in a conference in consecutive seasons. … According to Elias, teams that lost by 28 or more in the regular season to a team that it then faced again in the postseason are 11-11 in the rematch. All six playoff losses the Patriots have suffered under Bill Belichick were rematches of regular-season games. … This is the fourth time the Patriots have been the No. 2 seed. They reached the Super Bowl each of the past three times and are 8-1 all time as the No. 2 seed. … Including the playoffs, Brady is 85-15 at home -- the best home record of any quarterback that began his career in the Super Bowl era.
Wade PhilipsAP Photo/Patric SchneiderThe Patriots torched Wade Phillips's defense during their Week 14 matchup and won 42-14.
The New England Patriots gobbled up 419 yards and scored six touchdowns against the Houston Texans in a regular season meeting.

The guy who’s got to get the Texans defense ready for a better showing Sunday, Wade Phillips, said the unit’s effort at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 10 wasn’t as bad as it appeared, and believe it can fare far better in Sunday’s divisional round playoff game.

“We always want to execute better,” Phillips said. “We’ll give them some different looks, obviously. But we’ve got to execute. That’s what we do, we try to play fundamentally sound, make it hard to complete the ball on you, those kinds of things.

“We’re going to try, just like we always do, to play the running game and force them into throwing it.”

That’s dangerous, of course, because the guy the Texans want to throw it is Tom Brady who was surgical against them in the regular season blowout and has a stellar playoff record.

Here’s Phillips on some key issues heading into the game:

Attacking Brady: “You’re not going to get to him very much. That’s what he’s great at. He recognizes blitz and changes protections better than anybody in the league, anybody that I’ve ever been around. He finds out where you’re coming from, he’s patient enough to wait and do it at the last second and pick up most. You just don’t see people get to him much. You’ve got to beat some one-on-one blocks, but to get guys clean on him is hard to do.”

Presumptive defensive player of the year J.J. Watt didn’t sack Brady in the first game, but he did hit him four times and was more disruptive in that game than he got credit for.

Defending Welker: The Texans wanted to slow Wes Welker down and did a good job of it. He had three catches for 52 yards. Other pass-catchers hurt the Texans far more in the loss.

That was the first game for Brandon Harris working as the nickelback in place of the injured Brice McCain. The penalty-prone Harris is a lot better now than he was then.

Houston’s top corner, Johnathan Joseph is far healthier this time around. He typically tracks the opponent’s best receiver but stays on the outside. Last week in the win over Cincinnati, Joseph even followed A.J. Green into the slot.

I asked Phillips if we might see Joseph do the same with Welker.

“Ah, Welker’s not Green,” Phillips said. “He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy. He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes. Harris actually played him pretty good. He got a holding penalty that hurt us early in the game. But Harris played pretty well… If we don’t get him on a speed guy, we’re in good shape.”

Joseph will be outside on someone like Brandon Lloyd or even one of the Patriots tight ends.

Speaking of which…

Slowing two top tight ends: Aaron Hernandez ate the Texans up with eight catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. Now Rob Gronkowski, who missed that game with an arm injury, will also be on the field.

“What makes it tough is, they’ve really got two tight ends in there but sometimes it’s like four wide receivers,” Phillips said. “They’re athletic enough to play out in space. So that gives you matchup problems. If you play your base defense against them it’s one thing, and if you play a sub defense against them it’s something else. If you play a sub what happens a lot of times with the two tight ends is they just run over people.

I think you have to mix it up and see how you match up, which players can play them and see if they need help. Do you need somebody to bang them at the line of scrimmage and then rush? If you have matchup problems you’ve got to do those kinds of things.”

Phillips said Hernandez really qualifies as a wide receiver in a lot of situations and indicated the Texans will cover him as such.

“If you put a corner on him they’re not quite as good,” Phillips said. “We hope we can match up well there. If they split him out wide and you put a corner on him instead of a linebacker they may look a little different. We’ll have to see.”

The Texans also insert a third safety to work as an inside linebacker in some situations. Shiloh Keo is slower but more physical than Quintin Demps and has taken over that role recently.

Phillips vs. Belichick: Shalise Manza Young breaks down Phillips’ work against Bill Belichick in this piece.

“He’s a great coach, he does a great job with them obviously,” Phillips said. “I don’t remember ever game we played. He’s had championship teams and winning teams for a long time. They’re always going to be good against anybody. His numbers are going to be good against anybody.”

Rematch attitude: “We talked about it last week -- hey we ought to be confident, look at all the things we’ve done in winning 12 games,” Phillips said. “Going into the Cincinnati game we said let’s get our swag back, we know we’re good, let’s go ahead and play like we play.

“We’ve got confidence going into this game. We feel like we should win. That’s our guys, that’s our mentality.”
Tom Brady and JJ WattGetty ImagesThe Texans sacked Tom Brady, left, just once in their first meeting with the Patriots. Can J.J. Watt and the front seven do a better job in the rematch?

The Patriots seemingly snickered after they blew out Houston on "Monday Night Football" back on Dec. 10.

The Texans arrived in New England wearing letterman jackets that they thought showed team unity, but instead came off as high schoolish, particularly after they were easily dispatched in what Andre Johnson called the biggest game in franchise history.

For the Patriots it was the next game on the schedule.

Before the Texans got on the bus, middle linebacker Bradie James said the Patriots had delivered a lesson in championship football. The Texans headed back to Houston, humbled and officially in a slump. They lost two of their next three, fumbling away the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.

A win over Cincinnati in the wild-card round earned the Texans a trip back to Gillette Stadium.

Can the Texans put up a better fight as major underdogs Sunday? James Walker of the AFC East blog joins me to discuss the game.

Paul Kuharsky: Tom Brady shredded the Texans in that regular-season game, James. He threw four touchdown passes in no time, recognizing Houston couldn’t keep up with his targets, particularly Aaron Hernandez. Now, Brady has Rob Gronkowski back.

Do you see any way the Texans can get Brady off his game at home in the playoffs?

James Walker: The key to stopping Brady is not a secret: You must beat him up. Brady doesn’t like getting hit in the face, especially at age 35. The problem is that is much easier said than done. New England is extremely good at self-scouting and schemes very well to keep Brady upright. Houston got only one sack against Brady in the first meeting, so it was no surprise that he threw four touchdowns. I expect New England to once again keep some running backs and tight ends in protection to keep Houston’s pass rush off Brady. The Texans will need to throw caution to the wind and blitz more defenders than New England has blockers, and that’s where the chess match begins. Brady is tremendous at reading the blitz and rarely gets fooled with coverages. That's why he's so difficult to beat. Speaking of quarterbacks, what do you expect from Houston counterpart Matt Schaub in his first divisional-round playoff game?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Mike Carter/US PresswireMatt Schaub's ability to connect on big plays downfield could be key for the Texans.
PK: Schaub finally had his first playoff experience last week and he’s now 1-0 in the postseason. But facing Cincinnati at home and New England on the road are two different things. He did fine against the Bengals, but I felt like coach Gary Kubiak was especially careful not to require many throws that were even moderately risky -- especially after Schaub threw that bad pick-six. Schaub has a bit of an unfair reputation for not being good in big games, mostly because he hasn't been in many big games. To spring an upset here, he’ll have to supplement the run game with some big plays and, obviously, avoid killer mistakes. To have a chance, the Texans need to really ride Arian Foster. He has gone over 100 yards in all three of his playoff games. He had 19 touches in that regular-season blowout. To maximize their chances, I’d say he’s got to have close to 30 this time.

JW: Paul, I agree: Foster is the biggest key for the Texans in this game. He enters with some momentum after rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown last week against the Bengals. Getting Foster 30 or more productive carries would not only wear on New England’s defense, it would keep the Patriots’ high-scoring, up-tempo offense off the field. New England has thrived this year by getting off more plays and offensive possessions than its opponents. Houston's best chance is to slow down the game and make it ugly. Teams that beat the Patriots this year, such as San Francisco and Baltimore, ran the football well and limited New England’s possessions.

PK: What’s the status of the Patriots' run game? Stevan Ridley ran fine in the regular-season game, gaining 72 yards on 19 carries. He earned a little doghouse time late in the season because of some fumbling issues. Has he regained the trust of Bill Belichick and the staff? And how much does it matter? It’s not as though New England needs to run or is afraid to play a game without handing it off a lot and we know that they will keep throwing it even in a blowout situation. So does it even matter if they can run it?

JW: Trust is big in New England, and Ridley has yet to earn it in the playoffs. Last year Ridley fumbled in the divisional round and didn’t play for the remainder of the postseason. The Patriots do not have the luxury to bench him again this year, which makes Ridley a key player to watch. New England’s offense usually passes to set up the run, but the ground game is more important than most people think. The Patriots rarely blow leads because they can run successfully when they need to. That time usually comes in the second half once they’re ahead.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/John BazemoreStevan Ridley may not figure heavily in the game plan, but he needs to make the most of his opportunities and limit mistakes.
I don’t expect Ridley to be a huge part of the game plan. His carries probably will be in the teens. But he needs to make the most of each carry and take care of the football. If Ridley doesn’t step up, look for the Patriots to go to a more dependable and sure-handed option such as Danny Woodhead. The Texans' defense allowed 42 points and 419 yards in the first meeting. What adjustments will Houston’s defense need to make to be more successful in the rematch?

PK: The coverage has to be way tighter. Johnathan Joseph played in the first meeting but had not been practicing and had missed time with groin and hamstring injuries. Brandon Harris was starting for the first time as the nickel after Brice McCain’s foot injury. The Texans set out to slow Wes Welker and they did, then got killed by everyone else. They know they aren’t going to get more than a sack or two on Brady because of how he gets rid of the ball and how skilled he is at changing protections. I expect they’ll mix it up on Hernandez and Gronkowski but they won’t be afraid to treat them as receivers.

The secondary had a bad night in Foxborough and a bad final quarter of the season. Joseph and Kareem Jackson and safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are all better cover guys than they showed that night, when they were even getting beaten by Donte' Stallworth, who had been back in the league for barely five minutes. They simply have to be better if the Texans are going to be in this game.

JW: I was with you in Houston last weekend, and I noticed the secondary played much better than the last time I saw the Texans in Foxborough. Joseph looked more like himself and did a good job, for the most part, on Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. On the other hand, I think an intriguing matchup will be Patriots corner Aqib Talib against Houston’s Johnson, who had another monster season. Big games and matchups like this are why the Patriots acquired Talib in a midseason trade. He instantly became New England’s best cover corner. The Patriots usually play a lot of zone, but they’ve been able to mix zone and man coverages a lot better in the second half of the season with Talib in the lineup. Houston will have a few opportunities to take shots down the field with Johnson against Talib one-on-one, and I think whoever wins those battles will have an impact on this game.

PK: It’ll be hard for the Texans to pull a surprise if there aren’t a couple of big Schaub-to-Johnson connections.

Houston will arrive in New England with an "us-against-the-world" mentality, because the Texans are heavy underdogs. The Patriots aren’t invincible. But if they start fast, they may look that way to the Texans yet again.

RTC: Locker has shoulder repaired

January, 10, 2013
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

If the Texans struggled with Aaron Hernandez, how are they going to stop Rob Gronkowski, too? John McClain of the Chronicle considers the question from Houston, while Tania Ganguli looks at it from New England.

Shayne Graham hasn’t missed a field goal shorter than 46 yards all season, says Dale Robertson of the Chronicle.

The Bears will travel to Houston to interview Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison on Friday, says McClain.

J.J. Watt paid tribute to Craig Biggio, who narrowly missed the baseball hall of fame.

Two looks at how the Texans don’t even give themselves a shot in the red zone. Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report picks up on something I wrote and expands on it.

Indianapolis Colts

His inner ear infection is resolved and Bruce Arians is set to interview Sunday with the Bears, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. Jim Irsay’s offered a sizable raise for Arians to stay.

A long and thorough list of things the Star’s Phillip B. Wilson will remember about the 2012 Colts.

If Arians leaves, who will replace him, asks Dunlevy. Andrew Luck will make someone a genius.

Jacksonville Jaguars

David Caldwell will be introduced as Jaguars general manager this afternoon. Perhaps by then a decision will have been made on the coaching staff, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Justin Blackmon and Bryan Anger are on PFW’s All-Rookie Team, says O’Halloran.

Tennessee Titans

Jake Locker had shoulder surgery Wednesday and if his recovery of his non-throwing shoulder goes well he’ll be throwing in June, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Jordan Babineaux hopes he is with the Titans for the second year of his two-year contract, says Wyatt.

Before Dave Gettleman was hired as GM of the Carolina Panthers, Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson interviewed for the job, says Wyatt.

Quick Take: Texans at Patriots

January, 6, 2013
1/06/13
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Five things to know about next Sunday’s Houston Texans-New England Patriots AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium:

It was ugly last time: On Dec. 10, on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots smoked the Texans 42-14. New England was up 28-0 in the third quarter and the Texans basically waved the white flag by early in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Bradie James said after it was over that the Patriots had given the Texans a lesson in championship-caliber football. Houston believed if there was a playoff rematch, it would be at Reliant Stadium. But the Texans lost two out of three after that and allowed the No. 1 seed, home-field advantage and a bye week to slip away.

Top QBs shred the Texans: Tom Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in that regular-season meeting. Houston has had a poor season when it comes to defending topflight quarterbacks. Before Brady’s big game, Peyton Manning (in a loss) and Aaron Rodgers (in a win) had also posted big numbers against the Texans. What could be different this time? Well, Connor Barwin was better as a pass-rusher against Cincinnati than he has been much of this season, and if he can add to the threat J.J. Watt provides, that would help. And while cornerback Johnathan Joseph struggled in that initial meeting, Houston’s top corner is as healthy now as he has been in a long time.

The Gronk factor: The Texans struggled with Aaron Hernandez in the first matchup, as he caught eight passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns. As good as Hernandez is, Rob Gronkowski tends to present even more of a matchup problem. He missed the first game as he recovered from a broken arm. Brian Cushing might be good against him, but the Texans inside linebacker has been out since October after suffering a torn ACL. Nickelback Brice McCain just missed his fifth game since surgery to repair a broken foot. If the Texans were at full strength, Gronkowski would be a matchup problem -- and he and Hernandez together could be a giant problem. Minus two guys who might be able to do some effective work in that department, the Texans could really struggle to keep Brady from finding Gronkowski and Hernandez.

The third-down story: Heading into the regular-season meeting, the Texans were allowing offenses to convert just 28.2 percent of third downs and Bill Belichick raved about that facet of Bulls on Parade. Brady and the Patriots converted 50 percent in the win, and Houston’s defense finished the season allowing 33.0 percent. But in nine third-down opportunities in the wild-card playoff game Saturday at Reliant Stadium, the Bengals didn’t convert once. The Texans have their confidence back in that department, though they know the New England offense is a whole different deal than Cincinnati’s was.

Will the weather matter? The Texans beat the Bears at Soldier Field on Nov. 11 on a cold, rainy Chicago night that was super windy. Chicago’s offense is not as threatening or high-powered as New England’s, however. If Sunday afternoon is a blustery, Northeastern winter day, it’s less than ideal for the Texans. That’s part of why those failed chances to earn home-field advantage were so big.
Bill Belichick and Gary KubiakGetty ImagesBill Belichick has steered the Patriots to the top of the AFC, but Gary Kubiak and the Texans are now gunning for the conference's perennial top team.
It’s been a while since the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl, but they remain the standard-bearers in the AFC.

They’ve been to two of the past five Super Bowls, including the most recent one. They’ve been in five of the previous 11 Super Bowls and won three in four years from 2001 to 2004.

For teams looking to become consistent AFC powers, the Patriots are the target. One of those teams, the Houston Texans, is heading to New England for "Monday Night Football."

No matter the result, the Texans will still have at least a one-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This could be an AFC Championship Game preview.

Can the Texans overtake the Patriots?

"I think they can," one AFC executive said. "They have the talent, they have the consistency of scheme on both sides of the ball to do it. The wild card is their health, particularly on defense."

"That's going to be a tough one," said Rosevelt Colvin, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons as linebacker with the Patriots and spent a training camp with the Texans. "Patriots are the closest thing to consistency you will find in this era of NFL ball. Two big reasons: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady."

New England’s coach and quarterback have the skins on the wall and the credibility that come with them. That doesn’t mean someone new can’t break through, though only three other teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the Patriots came to prominence: Oakland once, Indianapolis twice and Pittsburgh three times.

Are the Texans poised to break through?

"Everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. "This league’s about consistency. I think I learned a lot about that in my time in San Francisco and Denver. Doing things right all the time.

"We’re trying to become a very consistent organization here and put a consistent product on the field week in and week out and do things the right way. We’re very young in the process, but we have a lot of respect for what they do."

One major similarity: Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Texans owner Bob McNair are widely regarded as two of the best owners in the NFL. They are willing to spend to make things first-class, and they back their coaches.

Let’s look at some other ways the Texans are similar to the Patriots and some ways they are different:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady's consistent play has made the Patriots annual Super Bowl contenders.
Scheme: The Patriots morph as required, not just season to season but sometimes week to week.

They drafted two high-quality tight ends when they saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez available and shifted their offense to be predominantly two-tight. When both missed time because of injury -- Gronkowski won't play Monday -- they easily shifted to three-wide. They’ve been a 3-4 team. They’ve been a 4-3 team.

Belichick adapts to what he has and the circumstances.

The Texans don’t morph.

They’ve updated and improved Kubiak’s offensive system since he took over in 2006, but the principles are the same. The zone-blocking line cuts defenders down, and the back is asked to make one cut and go. They run a ton of play-action and ask quarterback Matt Schaub to roll out and run bootlegs off that. It’s not a common scheme, which makes it a bit tougher for defenses to handle.

Defensively, they struggled to find an identity until they brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. As leader of the defense, he installed his brand of 3-4 and stamped the Texans with a personality they had been lacking. Now they are locked into a defensive system that same way they are locked in on offense.

They are both top-eight rushing teams, but running is less important to New England because its passing game is more straight drop-back and shotgun while the Texans rely on far more play-action.

Leadership: Belichick is the team’s authority, although while the Patriots came to prominence much was made of how he worked in tandem with Scott Pioli in the front office. If they didn’t agree on a player, they would move on to the next one.

Pioli left to become the general manager in Kansas City in 2009. Belichick remains the powerful agenda-setter, but he has resources when he wants them -- including director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football adviser Floyd Reese.

Although the Texans have always stayed mum publicly about who has final say, Kubiak was hired first and general manager Rick Smith joined him. League insiders see the Texans as a coach-steered franchise. Kubiak and Smith have an excellent relationship and get good input from front-office personnel, coordinators and assistants.

Kubiak and Belichick have vastly different public personalities. Belichick is gruff and controlling. Kubiak is personable and agreeable.

Belichick wields more power, but the setups for both coaches in their organizations are comparable.

Depth: Belichick once lost Brady in the Patriots opener. He plugged in Matt Cassel and won 11 games.

Overall, New England has done exceedingly well plugging reserves in when needed and getting sufficient production. The Patriots also move guys around with success. We’ve seen them play receiver Troy Brown at corner. Currently, Devin McCourty can line up at cornerback or safety.

Although veterans generally want to stay in their winning atmosphere, the Patriots have not been sentimental about keeping guys. If a player gets too old or too expensive, they’ll let him walk.

The Texans went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates playing because starter Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both got hurt. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was out after five games, and receiver Andre Johnson missed nine. Houston showed off its depth in overcoming the absences.

The team let Williams leave as a free agent, traded inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and released right tackle Eric Winston in the offseason while fitting other pieces under the cap. They got Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown locked up with long-term contracts before the season kicked off.

Houston is showing off its depth again this season. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down after five games, and Tim Dobbins has played well in his place. Brooks Reed missed last week and will be out a few more, and the team has first-rounder Whitney Mercilus to insert into a shuffled linebacker corps.

"Keeping the talent pool full of younger guys that can run that system is key, as well as coaching consistency," Colvin said. "They have a good mix right now."

Colts know they don't measure up yet

November, 18, 2012
11/18/12
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Andrew LuckDavid Butler II/US PresswireDespite a subpar game from quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts are still in the playoff picture.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- They didn't want to hear it and most of them certainly weren't going to say it.

But these Colts might have been due for this. As good a story as they've been, as wonderfully as Andrew Luck has played, as well as they've rallied behind Chuck Pagano, this is still a team with holes.

Take those holes on the road against Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and new addition Aqib Talib, and this is what you get, a 59-24 beatdown. And it's fine. Not to apologize for them, but the Colts have plenty of room to endure a road loss to New England and still get to the playoffs.

Maybe the 7-3 Patriots are not what they used to be. But the Colts (6-4) are not what the Patriots are.

The company line, first served by interim coach Bruce Arians, was that it was a learning experience -- a bad learning experience, but a learning experience.

“We’ll make damn sure we remember it,” he said. “You don’t throw things away.”

It’s a reference point now.

“We’ll fight our tails off so we can come back here in January,” Arians said.

It was an ugly afternoon. The Colts actually gained 2 more net yards than the Patriots did, 448-446. Indianapolis converted 57 percent of its third downs. And Andrew Luck had his fifth 300-yard passing game, a rookie record.

It was all washed away because Luck turned the ball over four times, with three picks and a lost fumble. Two of the passes to the wrong team turned into 59- and 87-yard interception returns. The takeaways produced a total of 21 Patriots points to go with a 68-yard Julian Edelman punt return touchdown.

Push it all into a pile and it’s a five-touchdown mountain the Colts weren’t going to climb.

I’m of the opinion that a rebuilding team that’s ahead of schedule doesn’t have to be embarrassed about getting boat-raced by the Patriots.

Mature rookie tight end Dwayne Allen concurred.

“No shame at all,” he said. “Before the game I said this game would be a measuring stick. That first half told us we are good enough to compete -- compete -- with a championship-winning team. The game in its entirety, told us that we’re not there yet. We’re not at a point where we can beat a championship-contending team.

“The best thing about that is we’ve got six weeks, six weeks to prove that not only can we make it to the playoffs but we can get better to the point we can beat those kinds of teams.”

The Colts have been the feel-good story of the NFL this season because of the way Pagano's team has responded to his battle with leukemia. It’s rare for a young team to have something so important to rally around.

In a less-than-stellar AFC, it became obvious in recent weeks there can be room for the Colts to qualify for the playoffs despite many (meaningless) preseason rankings that had them 32nd at the start of the season.

Even at 6-4, they are in a great spot. At worst the Colts go into Week 12 with a one-game lead on Cincinnati for the final spot in the field. Indianapolis still hosts Buffalo and Tennessee. The Colts still go to Detroit and Kansas City. The season finale is a game at Houston that may be meaningless to the Texans.

Heading home, the Colts don’t feel as if they’ve tumbled from some height with the failure against the Patriots. I don’t mean to suggest they quickly accepted it or enjoyed it. They didn’t. They were ticked. Luck was angry at himself over mistakes he knows he can’t make, mistakes that he knows how not to make.

When it was 38-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Colts looked poised to tack on another TD and keep some hope alive. From the New England 23-yard line, Luck threw for Reggie Wayne on the left, clearly thinking he was cutting in. Wayne cut out, and Alfonzo Dennard easily caught the pass and raced for a touchdown.

Luck raced to try to stop the score, diving for the cornerback’s ankles but failing to trip him up before sliding to a halt at about the 23-yard line. Face down, he slapped the ground once, twice, three times -- effectively counting the Colts out.

When’s the last time he was on a team that lost by five touchdowns?

“I’m sure some time in Pop Warner,” he said. “… You’d like to think that we’d have a chance to win if we could play them again, but they whipped our butts tonight. All the credit goes to them. They were the much better team tonight.”

The Patriots' 59 points tied a franchise record for points in a game.

Minus both players they intended to have as their starting corners at this point, the Colts weren’t as bad against receivers as they were against the Patriots tight end who causes matchup issues for virtually everyone. Gronkowski caught all seven balls Brady threw his way for 137 yards and two scores.

I don’t know what the Colts can do with the people they have, like linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Antoine Bethea, to slow Gronkowski down.

What will slow down now, at least for a week, is the hype that’s been building around the Colts.

“The media built us up and people tried to hop on that bandwagon and scream and tell us how good we are,” Allen said. “And we shut them out because we knew we weren’t as good as they were telling us we were. We knew we still had some things to improve in. That’s why we’ve got the rest of the season. To first prove we can get to the playoffs, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

As far as the potential for a return trip to New England that Arians mentioned, Allen wasn’t biting.

“We’ve got Buffalo next week,” he said. “That’s our total and complete focus. We’re off of the Patriots. We’re on Buffalo.”

Cook ranks higher than he thought

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- We’ve talked a good deal about Jared Cook not being used enough in this space.

Last week offensive coordinator Chris Palmer promised Cook would get balls early. The Titans tight end wound up with four passes, including the 25-yarder that set up Rob Bironas' field goal that beat the Steelers last Thursday night.

The Titans shared an interesting note this week about where exactly Cook ranks over the past two season in receiving yardage and receiving average in the AFC.

I asked Cook to guess where he’d fall on such a list.

“Probably seventh, around there, I’d guess,” he said.

Actually he’s second. The only tight end ahead of him is New England’s Rob Gronkowski (1,683 yards).

Cook has 1,050 yards and a 14.6-yard average, a half yard better than Gronk.

Include the whole league and Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Brent Celek, Vernon Davis and Fred Davis also get ahead of Cook in receving yardage for 2011-12.

But Cook, who expressed frustration before the Steelers game about not being more involved in the offense, said it’s not about yards as much as receptions.

Of those seven tight ends in front of him and the next seven behind him on the yardage list, they all have more receptions than Cook’s 72. (Owen Daniels is 10th in the NFL, third in the AFC with 1,034 yards on 80 catches.)

“It could be better,” Cook said. “If I had more receptions, I’d have more yards, of course. My average could come down. I’ll take more receptions of course. Who wouldn’t?”

Double Coverage: Titans vs. Patriots

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
11:56
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Jake Locker, Tom BradyUS PresswireIn his first start, Jake Locker, left, faces Tom Brady and the defending AFC champion Patriots.


They’ve got a lot of young talent, headlined by a young and unproven quarterback.

And on opening day at LP Field, the Tennessee Titans have the ultimate measuring stick: The New England Patriots are the defending AFC champions and the franchise that’s been the model for consistently contending in the conference.

Titans general manager Ruston Webster and coach Mike Munchak are in their first and second years, respectively, in their posts. They seek to establish a pathway to finding and fielding talent and a team culture the way Bill Belichick has in New England.

A Titans upset Sunday would do a lot for the early stages of the process. It won’t come easily, as the Patriots will bring an eight-game opening-day winning streak to Music City.

In advance of the game, I invited Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com to banter about it.

Paul Kuharsky: The popular thinking during the Titans’ quarterback battle was that veteran Matt Hasselbeck would be better able to handle a team like New England than Jake Locker would. But it’s Locker who will be under center Sunday, making his first start against the defending AFC champs.

New England might not be a defensive football team, Mike, but I feel pretty confident that the Patriots will have a laundry list of things intended to overwhelm a young quarterback making his first NFL start.

Mike Reiss: Part of me wonders if Belichick would have preferred seeing Hasselbeck in there, just because there is more NFL background on him to study. Belichick often talks about how the opening game of a season is so unpredictable, and this adds another layer to the preparation. The main thing Belichick has been stressing with Locker is how athletic he is, so keeping him in the pocket with good rush-lane integrity figures to be a focus for the revamped Patriots defensive front. Belichick figures to make limiting running back Chris Johnson a No. 1 priority, with the idea of putting the game in Locker's hands to see how he responds. It seems that's the place to start with the Titans' offense -- Johnson and Locker.

PK: The interior run blocking and Johnson's effort were huge questions in Munchak's first season as head coach. Johnson has admitted his holdout affected his game more than he expected it would. Tennessee looked at a bunch of free-agent centers, including Dan Koppen, before sticking with the status quo. Then center Eugene Amano suffered a season-ending torn triceps early in camp. So Fernando Velasco is the guy now. While new left guard Steve Hutchinson will do all he can to help, I figure the Patriots will be hoping to get Velasco and the Titans' lesser guard, Leroy Harris, in bad spots against Vince Wilfork. As for Johnson, no less an authority than Eddie George said the speedster got into a bad habit last season when he stopped moving his feet upon initial contact. We'll be watching for that Sunday at LP Field. Does he make a quick lateral move and give himself a chance to keep going when the first guy gets to him? Or does he stall? If it's the second option, he'll be doomed.

How about running back the other way? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone now, so what's the Patriots' pecking order at the position? The Titans seem pretty solid up the middle if they are at full strength with Sen'Derrick Marks and Jurrell Casey. Isn't New England's group of backs mostly littler than you?

MR: I see what you did there, Paul. Very clever. But as Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk and others have shown us over the years, sometimes the smallest dog in the fight has the biggest bite. The Patriots have really turned over their running back position from just two years ago. What was once the oldest position on the roster is now defined by youth -- second-year backs Stevan Ridley (third round, LSU) and Shane Vereen (second round, Cal) top the depth chart, with the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Woodhead (fifth year) the change-of-pace back who plays a lot because of how much the offense is in the shotgun. Rookie Brandon Bolden, who took the same path as Green-Ellis to make the roster as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi, is the fourth option. Ridley and Bolden are both 5-11 and 220 pounds. They run with power. Vereen (5-9, 205) brings more of a speed element, although it is unlikely we will see him after he hobbled off in the team's third preseason game and hasn't practiced since. There is more big-play potential with this group that they had last year with Green-Ellis leading all running backs by playing 34 percent of the snaps. Don't sleep on this group, although it's safe to say the Patriots are an attack that will lean more heavily toward the pass. So protection for Tom Brady figures to be key, and they had a shaky preseason in that area.

PK: In my view, for the Titans to have a chance to pull an upset here, they'll need to really harass Brady. I think making New England use Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as help in pass protection will wind up their best chance to defend those tight ends. Rookie linebacker Zach Brown was drafted because he can keep up with guys like that, but in his first game – while I expect him to have some sort of nickel role -- I think it'd be awfully hard to be a successful part of slowing them. Tennessee's pass rush looks to be operating inside out -- Casey may be their best defensive lineman -- so it will be interesting to see how effectively Brady can slide or step up, and if a second guy will arrive to get to him.

One matchup I think can be better than most think is Alterraun Verner against Welker. Certainly there are some plays where you cannot stop what Brady and Welker are doing. But Verner had a real knack for disrupting the quick stuff that gets fed to slot receivers. I look for him to make a couple plays.

MR: Watching the Patriots this preseason, it's fair to say pass protection is a concern. Brady took some big hits, fumbling against the Saints and Buccaneers. This has been a successful formula for teams that can pull it off -- disrupt the passing game by getting to Brady early. The problem is that not all teams can do that. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 2011 first-round draft choice Nate Solder is now the team's permanent left tackle, stepping in for the retired Matt Light. There have been some growing pains, so if we're talking matchups to watch, how about Solder against Kamerion Wimbley? Also, there is some uncertainty as to who will start at center, as the team's longtime option there, Koppen, was released at the final cutdown. Add in that left guard Logan Mankins (coming back from a torn ACL) played just 11 snaps this preseason and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (returning from a back injury) played just nine snaps in the preseason, and this is a unit that bears watching on Sunday. The Titans have a chance to control the line of scrimmage.

PK: That's good work in terms of talking me out of feeling like we're going to watch a blowout unfold. (Yes, 2009 is ancient history, but it's hard to forget 59-0 at Gillette Stadium.) I remained convinced the Patriots will find their points. Heck, they scored 30 or more 12 times last season, topping 40 twice. Add Brandon Lloyd to the mix on offense, and I expect Brady to help them post a crooked number. To pull an upset, I think Locker will have to manage the same.

That's as close as I'll come to picking it -- I hate putting myself in position to root for a result to make myself look smart. You know what a challenge that is for me even without making a pick.

MR: I think this is a game the Patriots should win. The Titans are a team that if you sleep on them, they will beat you, but that usually isn't a problem for the Patriots, because Belichick doesn't allow for complacency. The Titans probably hoped for higher temperatures than the predicted mid-70s. Still, look for Belichick to rotate a lot of his personnel as a way of keeping them fresh. The one position that won't be in play is quarterback, and I think it's fair to say that's the big difference in this game -- Brady. Big advantage there for the Patriots.

PK: Impossible to argue that point, so this looks like our ending.
Mark BarronMarvin Gentry/US PresswireMark Barron was one of the leaders on Alabama's No. 1-ranked defense last season.

The Tennessee Titans might be looking for help at safety early in the draft. Could an injury that kept a prime prospect out of the combine help that prospect slip to the Titans at No. 20?

Alabama safety Mark Barron looks to be a player who could solve a big issue in Tennessee. He’s a big (6-foot-1, 213 pounds), rangy playmaker who should be an opening day starter. He played both free and strong safety for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.

“Big safety, athletic, smart, rare size and frame,” a scout told me at the combine. “Runs the show in a difficult defense to absorb. Very good kid. No issues. Coaches love him and trust him. Immediate starter wherever he goes. Injury is the only way he is available at 20.”

Barron underwent double sports hernia surgery after the Crimson Tide won the national championship, so he’s still in a rehab stage and didn’t work out at the combine.

“I feel good,” he said. “As far as me working out, I’m just doing rehab. I feel good, I feel like I can do whatever I need to do. I just haven’t been cleared to do certain things. That’s where I’m at right now ...

“I don’t have an exact time for when I’ll be 100 percent but I plan on working out late March … From what I’ve heard, it’s not going to really affect anything as far as where I get drafted.”

ESPN’s resident physical therapist Stephania Bell said once Barron is fully healed from the sports hernias, he won’t have a health issue.

Titans GM Ruston Webster said he doesn’t think an injury that won’t be a concern down the road generally has much impact on the draft position of a player.

“People are going to draft off what they see on film,” he said. “… Mark Barron is a big, tough, instinctive safety. He’s got size, he can play in the box and he can play deep.”

Like guards, safeties are generally not regarded as first-round priorities. Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats & Information said 4.4 percent of first-round picks have been used on safeties over the past 10 years. Nearly three times as many first-round picks have been used on corners in that time frame.

I understand that draft strategy when there isn’t much talent there, as the case was last year. Rahim Moore was the first safety off the board in 2011, 13 picks into the second round to Denver. There wasn't a safety selected in the first round in 2009, either.

But a chance to draft a difference-making safety should be regarded the same as one at any other position. Maybe it should be viewed as an even bigger opportunity, because it's rarer.

“I feel like it’s very hard for us safeties to get in the first round, so I think that shows you that the position of safety is being undervalued,” Barron said. “… If a guy’s a good player, then he’s just a good player. I don’t see why, position-wise, if you have a better player that’s a safety and then you have a corner that might not be a better football player, I don’t see a reason why the corner should go ahead of the safety.

“I’ve seen it happen. I just don’t understand it but that’s not my position to pick.”

When the Titans drafted Texas safety Michael Griffin 19th overall in 2007, they were oddly wary of how the move would be regarded. They went on an extensive, pointless charade of calling him a cornerback. After they wasted a lot of time with him at corner, he started the seventh game of his rookie season -- at safety.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireMark Barron wasn't able to work out at the NFL combine since he's still recovering from offseason surgery.
Now he’s heading for free agency. The Titans would be wise to attempt to upgrade rather than retain him, as he’s far too inconsistent, missing tackles at key times and playing his best only when those around him are doing the same. I want my safeties to be steady.

The Titans' GM-turned-president, Mike Reinfeldt, was a successful NFL safety. Griffin was Tennessee’s first first-round pick with Reinfeldt at the helm. Webster is now the GM who will have the strong hand in making the draft-day calls, and the Titans shouldn’t be wary of taking a safety in the first round again if Barron is there -- provided they haven't restocked in free agency.

The importance of a player like him is on the rise.

He can be a key countermeasure in gaining ground in nightmare matchups with tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the Saints.

“He can cover tight ends,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said of Barron. “I need him to cover Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and he can do that.”

Not all analysts are in love with the Alabama safety, however.

“I think there is a good chance there will be no safeties that get drafted in the first round,” said Russ Lande, a former scout who now is a draft analyst for The Sporting News and GM Jr. “The reality is Barron is a good football player, but he’s not a premier athlete and there are teams that definitely have questions about his ability to be effective in deep pass coverage.

“Although I think he’s a good player who’s going to be a solid starter, I think there is a real likelihood he will be there at 20, that he will even be there in the second round.”

One of the things most teams do like about Barron is his experience at Alabama. He was the glue of a complex defense. The Titans' D will likely be more straightforward, but they sure could use a guy like that.

The team that drafts Barron will be expecting an intelligent player who can be plugged in, learn quickly and reliably play a scheme.

“We played in a very difficult defense, first of all,” Barron said. “We did a lot of different schemes. As far as communicating, I had a lot to do with that on the back end. I feel like sometimes I brought some energy with the hits that I made and things of that nature. So, I did a lot of different things.”

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