AFC South: Three things preseason 2011

Three things: Bears-Titans

August, 27, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Titans against the Bears at LP Field, where kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CT.

The Titans need some plays from receivers. Through two games they’ve been without Kenny Britt and he won’t play tonight either. Their other top four -- Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and Marc Mariani -- don’t have a play of more than 28 yards. Gage doesn’t have a catch and Washington has only one. Kevin Curtis was just added yesterday, so odds are he doesn’t play. Matt Hasselbeck may key on Jared Cook, but he’s got to develop some feel with receivers too. Playing beyond the half will afford that chance. Red zone efficiency is an area that can improve.

The running backs will be led, again, by Jamie Harper. With Chris Johnson holding out and Javon Ringer (hip) hurt, the Titans will still be looking to run. Harper made great strides from his first game to his second. Now he’s got a great chance to give the team even further assurance that if Johnson’s not around, he can be the alternative to Ringer on offense.

Defensive end depth will have a chance to make an impression. The Titans want to be bigger there, but with the injured Derrick Morgan and Jason Jones they lose their top big ends. Pannel Egboh (6-6, 287) will have a tough time making the roster because there is little room. But he was good last week and will probably have a chance to impress again. If you don’t see him much it means they hope to get him on the practice squad.

Three things: Texans-49ers

August, 27, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Texans against the 49ers at Candlestick Park, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

Mario Williams’ giant preseason spotlight will glare again. People are being a little crazy in wanting to give a thumbs down so quickly to his transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4. He’s still getting used to standing up. Look to see if he can be disruptive against Alex Smith and the 49ers, not just with sacks, pressures and hits, but with tackles of running backs and batted balls. Even a zero of a night won’t mean it’s time for panic. But it’d be good if it’s not a zero of a night.

Run defense, particularly up the middle, was an issue a week ago against New Orleans. Houston needs to show its new defensive front can stop a back like Frank Gore as he attempts to find yards between the tackles. Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans might not be on the field, but Daryl Sharpton is a talented replacement and if he’s in the lineup it won’t be a sufficient excuse for any failures against the run.

The offense moved the ball very well last week and will simply be looking to sustain things. Arian Foster should get a fair share of carries, with Derrick Ward or Ben Tate also getting a few touches with the first team as it works into the third quarter. Matt Schaub will continue to work the Texans play-action and bootleg passing game. But my biggest issue would be making sure the front liners make it out of California healthy.

Three things: Packers-Colts

August, 26, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Colts against the Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET. CBS will broadcast the game.

1. Is the quarterback play any better? Bill Polian said Kerry Collins can conceptually master an offense in 48 hours, yet the veteran who joined the team Wednesday will not play. What’s to gain for Curtis Painter playing into the third quarter with first-teamers? His hold on the No. 3 spot, I suppose. Perhaps most interesting will be Jim Caldwell’s post game review of the quarterback if he’s ineffective. Can they still paint it positively? The offensive line is expected to have Ryan Diem at right guard as the team still jiggles things looking for the right combination.

2. The defense needs to do some run-stopping. There is no switch-flipping to come and the group knows what Houston’s intent will be on opening day. Though the defense will be without safety Antoine Bethea (hamstring) and could be without Gary Brackett (elbow) tonight, a solid effort would reinforce confidence. We’ll see veteran additions Jamaal Anderson and Ernie Sims in action for the first time. It’s ultimately meaningless, yes. But there is something to be said for not being embarrassed on national TV. The Packers dismantled the Colts in Green Bay in Week 3 last preseason.

3. Rookie Delone Carter is an intriguing running back. He’s a short-yardage goal line type. The offense has struggled to move the ball, to say the least. One benefit of actually driving the ball a few times would be the chance to see Carter work in a couple of the situations he was drafted to address.

Three things: Saints-Texans

August, 20, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Texans against the Saints at Reliant Stadium, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

How do the defensive starters look in their second go-round working out of the 3-4? Mario Williams wasn’t super-smooth or super comfortable in his debut as a standup linebacker, but it’s unreasonable to expect the transition to be seamless. What the team hopes to see is forward progress from him and the rest of the front. They’d also like guys lower down the depth chart like Jesse Nading, Xavier Adibi and Bryan Braman to build on great performances in the opener.

Andre Johnson should make his preseason debut after sitting out last week while a finger continued to heal. As always, it’d be nice to see the starting quarterback and the top weapon connect in a reassuring way that says things are business as usual. And if the Saints pay extra attention to Johnson, can Schaub and the Texans make them pay with throws to Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter and/or Jacoby Jones?

The Saints were pretty blitz crazy in their preseason opener, a win against San Francisco. Houston needs to be ready to match up with such pressure, picking up defenders making runs at Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates and seeing all three make sound decisions about getting rid of the ball in the face of such pressure.

Three things: Titans-Rams

August, 20, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Titans against the Rams at the Edward Jones Done, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

Will the Titans be able to replicate the sort of clean and efficient effort they got last week? In Mike Munchak’s coaching debut, guys knew what to do and generally did it well. They need to build on the well-organized, low-penalty, low-mistake effort. St. Louis on the road in preseason Week 2 should provide a better test than Minnesota did last week in the opener at home. I’ll continue to search for indications of leadership, which are key for progress in all these areas.

Jamie Harper is expected to be the feature back with Chris Johnson still holding out and Javon Ringer dealing with a hip injury. Harper is a more powerful sort of back than CJ or Ringer. The Rams like to blitz, so his ability to pick up a rusher to protect Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker will be tested. If he fails there, what he is able to do taking handoffs won’t matter as much.

Munchak has emphasized his desire to see the offense in a live two-minute drill situation in this game. If it gets one before the half, it’s likely Locker will run it. Hasselbeck and the starters are expected to run about 25 plays and starters don’t usually play all the way to intermission in the second game. Johnson and/or Ringer will be a huge part of what the Titans do when they are trying to find points with little time available. Kenny Britt won’t be out there either.

Three things: Redskins-Colts

August, 19, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Indianapolis Colts against the Washington Redskins at Lucas Oil Stadium, at 7 p.m. ET.

Even at its best the Colts' offense is unlikely to be very good while driven by Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. So let’s focus on the defense. John Beck is starting at quarterback for the Redskins. Whoever is up front, the Colts should rattle the inexperienced signal-caller and get a read on their ability to stop the run, starting with Tim Hightower and Roy Helu. The Colts need to contain the running backs and show they can bring them down. That would be a good start.

Let’s see the offensive line assembly from the start. Indications are it will be, left to right, Anthony Castonzo, Joe Reitz, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem and Jeff Linkenbach. Castonzo could begin to take a vice grip on the job, and if Diem effectively slides inside it could help the cause as well. Some early signs of cohesion would be very good.

Don’t care too much. It’s hard to not be result-oriented, I know. But just force yourself. They don’t care if they lose or lose by a lot, so you need not to care.

Three things: Falcons-Jaguars

August, 19, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Jaguars against Atlanta at EverBank Field, where kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. ET.

1. QB competition: David Garrard is set for his first preseason action, and it’s become clear that he is in a competition for the starting job with rookie Blaine Gabbert. The Falcons have an established cornerback in Dunta Robinson, but he will be out with a knee injury. Atlanta will deploy the very good up-and-comer Brent Grimes and, probably, Chris Owens. Can Garrard make some plays to Mike Thomas and Jason Hill against them? What the veteran quarterback does here won’t make or break him, but a solid performance could go a long way toward quieting demands for Gabbert.

2. What’s the pass defense look like? Aaron Kampman won’t play, but can they get a rush on Matt Ryan without him? And can the secondary, particularly corners Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, hold up against receivers including Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones? We’ve been wondering about Courtney Greene and Dawan Landry both being more strong safeties than free safeties. It would be good if they were challenged in coverage so we could see their skills in space.

3. Offensive line depth. It is a question mark. Right tackle Eben Britton is out. Will we see Guy Whimper or Daniel Baldridge in his place? Whoever is there may be spared going against Ray Edwards (knee) as he will be a game-time decision. Can Britton’s fill-in show himself a capable backup, or will Jacksonville come away with concerns and take a look at some veteran free agent help?

Three things: Jets-Texans

August, 15, 2011
Three things to watch for in Houston’s preseason opener against the visiting New York Jets on Monday night. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on ESPN.

The new 3-4 front will be on display in a game situation for the first time. Coach Gary Kubiak said starters will only go 10 to 12 plays, but it should be enough to give us a sense of how things are different in the Wade Phillips-coordinated defense. Mario Williams will stand up as a “linebacker” for the first time, but he’s still going to be at or near the line of scrimmage. Look for him to regularly find his way to the weak side and to go heavy with the bull rush from the start against D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Wayne Hunter.

Matt Leinart was labeled a “special” in the last week by Kubiak. Matt Schaub’s backup will play a lot against the Jets. Leinart looks great in practice, with solid command and a nice ball. But critics who’ve watched him regularly from close range believe he’s just a beat off in game situations. The Jets intend to play starters for the entire first quarter, so while Leinart will work with mostly second-stringers, he will get some good work against some top defensive personnel.

Meet Chris Ogbonnaya. With Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and Ben Tate all dealing with hamstring injuries, expect Derrick Ward to get the carries with the first team and Ogbonnaya to be the running back who gets the most work on the night. The team really likes him, but the four guys in front of him all have loftier pedigrees, so it will be very difficult for him to make the team.

Three things: Titans-Vikings

August, 13, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason opener for the Titans against the Vikings at LP Field, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

Javon Ringer will work as the lead back. He’s a powerful runner the team likes and his preseason performance starting tonight could conceivably impact the leverage in the Titans vs. Chris Johnson lockout drama. The Titans are built to run it, and the passing game is typically supplementary. Can the first team run it effectively without Johnson in the backfield?

Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker will be the first two quarterbacks. Does Hasselbeck smoothly run the offense and look to be in control? And how does Locker do in his first NFL game setting? His play will be heavily scrutinized to see if his accuracy and poise translate from practice to a game.

A bigger defensive front has been constructed to stop the run. So if Adrian Peterson gets some early work will we see the Titans able to slow him down? There is a lot of change on defense, so it will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Jerry Gray calls the game and how middle linebacker Barrett Ruud gets the team lined up.

Three things: Colts-Rams

August, 13, 2011
Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason opener for the Colts against the Rams in St. Louis, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

The quarterbacks will have a big opportunity starting tonight to vie for the great job of working as Peyton Manning's backup. Manning has not yet returned from May neck surgery. Curtis Painter has gotten strong reviews for his progress, and the team likes Dan Orlovsky. Can they run an efficient offense and string together any drives after failing to do much in the scrimmage last week?

Local undrafted running backs Chad Spann and Darren Evans are roster long shots. But they will likely get plenty of action against the Rams and those carries will give the team a chance to evaluate them and see if they should be in the running for a fourth slot behind Joseph Addai, Donald Brown and Delone Carter.

Pat McAfee has said he expects to put roughly 80 percent of his kickoffs deep enough that they won’t be returned. Playing inside the Edward Jones Dome, does the Colts' kickoff coverage unit get any work? Or do we see the beginning of an era where not being good at it won’t matter nearly as much?

Three things: Jaguars-Patriots

August, 11, 2011
Three things to watch for in Jacksonville's preseason opener in New England Thursday night. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

Blaine Gabbert makes his debut in an NFL game setting, getting the start with David Garrard (back) out. But the rookie quarterback will be without Maurice Jones-Drew and rookie receiver Cecil Shorts who’s been working as the No. 3 wideout. Marcedes Lewis, who missed the early part of camp in a holdout, is unlikely to play. The Jaguars are hardly loaded with weapons with those guys. Without them, Gabbert will be challenged to find people to make plays for him.

Jason Hill is the No. 2 receiver but he’s hardly been heard from. Given the weapons shortage, this would be a good time for him to show up and be noticed. While he’s got plenty of time, he could soothe some nerves with some production.

The new-look defense will be on display and we’ll get our first look at Clint Session, Paul Posluszny and Dawan Landry on the field together. I expect a big hit or two out of them before they turn things over to the second team.