NFL Nation: Kareem Jackson

Texans Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
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HOUSTON -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Houston Texans' training camp.


  • On the field it was DeAndre Hopkins day at Texans' training camp this morning. Every time I looked up, Hopkins was making another leaping catch. One particularly impressive one came during a red-zone drill in which quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick found Hopkins in the end zone. Hopkins caught the ball with cornerback Brandon Harris draped on him, then held onto it as Harris tried to wrestle it out of Hopkins' gigantic hands as the two of them fell to the ground.
  • And by the way, that red-zone drill was great to watch. Actual hitting! In training camp! "That's how it's supposed to be every day," Kareem Jackson said. "We're supposed to be out here competing as a team. The more we can go full speed and live and compete against each other in game-type situations, it'll only make us better when game time comes."
  • The winner for most entertaining moment of practice goes to an interception by D.J. Swearinger (swag with three g's). He picked off Fitzpatrick during a drill where a line of offensive players stood just behind watching. Swearinger went forward full speed, moved aside the onlookers in his way and ran toward the end zone, high-stepping into it once he got there. By the time he got back to the drill, the offense was already well on its way to its next play.
  • The winner for biggest cheer of the day goes to a Shane Lechler punt that Jadeveon Clowney blocked.
  • Backup quarterback Case Keenum has had good moments during camp, but one thing that's obvious is his first instinct is still to run out of trouble. That's something the Texans' current staff and previous staff tried to fix in his game.
  • Sunday morning's practice will be open to the media but closed to the public. The Texans will start at 8:30 a.m. and wrap up around 11 a.m. They'll do their usual afternoon walk-through, too, and that will be closed to fans and media.

Kareem Jackson will play Sunday

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
2:51
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HOUSTON -- Houston Texans starting cornerback Kareem Jackson said he'll play on Sunday against the New England Patriots.

Jackson
Jackson has missed two games after suffering a broken rib against the Arizona Cardinals. He practiced on some level all week.

In his absence, the Texans have started Brice McCain at corner and moved Brandon Harris to the inside. With Jackson back, McCain should move back inside with Jackson back outside opposite cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

Jackson is targeted much less than Joseph; quarterbacks have targeted him 35 times this season.

The Texans lead the NFL in pass defense, giving up 171.8 yards per game. They've allowed 18 passing touchdowns, tied for the 15th most in the NFL with the Patriots and Cleveland Browns.

Locker Room Buzz: Houston Texans

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
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HOUSTON -- Observed in the locker room after the Houston Texans' 38-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams:

Schaub
Schaub
More tests for Schaub: While reporters spoke to backup quarterback T.J. Yates about, among other things, his anger at hearing fans cheer the injury to quarterback Matt Schaub, Schaub walked out of the locker room barefoot and left to get more tests done on his leg. He did not return and was unavailable to reporters. Schaub appeared to roll his ankle late in the third quarter when he was sacked by Rams defensive end Chris Long. Coach Gary Kubiak said he had "a little bit of everything on that one leg."

Watt not admitting defeat: Defensive end J.J. Watt held court in the middle of the locker room and, after about five minutes of queries, was asked by one reporter if the playoffs and Super Bowl were still a possibility for the Texans. "I mean, we're not mathematically out of it, are we?" he said curtly. "I didn't think so."

Jackson confused by penalty: Cornerback Kareem Jackson remained confused after the game about a 40-yard pass-interference penalty called on him. He said he relied on his technique and did exactly what he was supposed to do.

Locker Room Buzz: Houston Texans

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
6:19
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HOUSTON -- Observed in the locker room after the Houston Texans' 23-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Watt
Watt
Watt angry: J.J. Watt had bruises on his face, six stitches across the bridge of his nose, dried blood on his hands and pants and a fixed glare staring at nothing as he addressed reporters. Never one to dodge the media like a few Texans did, Watt wanted to get his interview out of the way before showering. "I can't freaking stand losing," Watt said, looking furious at a game that slipped away late. "... Nobody likes to lose, especially like this in your own building." After the questions stopped, Watt turned into his locker and threw something down with an emphatic thud.

Jackson confused: For the second straight home game, cornerback Kareem Jackson bemoaned a penalty called on him in overtime when the official called him for unnecessary roughness, picking a player up before taking him down. "Horrible, horrible, horrible," Jackson said. Jackson said he didn't know what the flag was for and his intention was to just stop the receiver.

Support for Schaub: Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, Jackson, running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson all expressed support for Matt Schaub, who has thrown interceptions returned for touchdowns in the past three games.

Andre Johnson feels like he'll play

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
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HOUSTON -- Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson was limited in practice on Thursday, coach Gary Kubiak said, but he's feeling good about his chances.

Johnson
"Right now, I feel like I'll play," Johnson said.

Johnson clarified that while he got kneed in the shin in Baltimore, he didn't have any bone damage. Rather, he suffered a deep bruise to the muscle around there. The injury occurred in the second quarter of the Texans' 30-9 loss. Johnson tried to return after halftime, but he was not effective enough to finish the game.

Limited participation is a step up from where Johnson was Wednesday, when he did not practice at all.

The Texans were also missing both starting cornerbacks in practice: Johnathan Joseph (foot) and Kareem Jackson (sick). Left tackle Duane Brown was limited and said after practice that he doesn't want to aggravate his turf-toe injury.
HOUSTON -- Houston Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson nearly slipped out of the locker room while reporters were occupied with defensive end J.J. Watt.

Once caught, Jackson gave his honest view on the $42,000 fine he's planning to appeal. The fine resulted from a hard hit on Titans receiver Kendall Wright.

"We’re supposed to be physical and try to knock the ball loose from the guy when they catch it in situations that you can," Jackson said. "So that’s what we get paid to do. Now you tell me you’re going to take my money for doing that? That’s my style of play. That’s how I play. I’m not trying to be a dirty player. That’s just how I play the game."

It's a frustrating exercise for Jackson, who still says he won't change how he plays. His fellow starting corner Johnathan Joseph supported that thought later to me. Joseph said he doesn't think the fines will change how defensive backs hit because they still have to play the game.

Some of Jackson's key quotes:
  • "That’s a huge number. That’s a huge number. It’s outrageous. I don’t know. Can’t do nothing but appeal it. It happened, so that’s all I can do. I’ll never understand a $42,000 fine for a hit. Never. Guy got up. He was okay. I’ll never understand that regardless of the situation or the hit. That’s how I feel about it."
  • Asked if it's hard to know what's legal now: "We don’t want to blow guys’ knees out and have them out for the rest of the season. If you go low on them you got guys saying it’s dirty plays and we’re trying to hurt people. I don’t understand. Blow a guy’s knee out or go high and he can get up and play the rest of the game, play the rest of the season. It’s hard, but we’re defensive players. We get paid to be physical out there. That’s our job."
  • Last week Jackson, who went to Alabama, said he might give a Crimson Tide T-shirt to coach Gary Kubiak, whose alma mater Texas A&M lost to Alabama this weekend. "I was but I gotta save my money now, man. $42,000 fine, so I’m going to save all the money I can. I can’t do any out of the ordinary things like buy everybody an Alabama T-shirt. I can’t do it. I gotta keep that money in my pocket."
  • "When I’m out there playing, I’m not thinking about no fine. I’m not. That’s my style of play. I pride myself on being physical. I want to let receivers know that I’m out there. I’m going to be out here on this corner. Every time you come out here, you’re going to feel it. That’s what I pride myself on. Games to come, this week, whatever. I’ll continue to be physical from here on out. Hopefully everybody will have their aim a little lower. But I’m going to continue to play how I play."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One hit drew a flag. The other didn't.

That wasn't the only distinction between Bernard Pollard's hit on Andre Johnson and Kareem Jackson's hit on Kendall Wright during the Houston Texans' win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

Poll 10 random football analysts or fans, and I am guessing there would be unanimous opinion that Jackson's hit was worse.

[+] EnlargeKareem Jackson
George Bridges/MCT via Getty ImagesTitans receiver Kendall Wright missed practice Wednesday with a concussion, three days after taking a hit from Bernard Pollard.
I think it was substantially worse.

The NFL thinks it was the same, or thinks it is worth the same once Pollard's history and reputation were put into whatever equation they use. I'd like to see the actuarial table put to use by the league here.

Pollard said he doesn't expect to win an appeal, if only because the league is so backed up from fining so many defenders.

His suggestion to help confused defenders and even officials:

“If you don’t want us to play defense, don’t call us 'defense' and take us off the field,” he said. “Just let them go against air. Let’s see what that do to the ratings of this game.”

(News story on his reaction is here.)

By Pollard's estimation, if he'd done what Jackson did he would have been fined six figures and might have been suspended.

"If I went in for the same hit that Kareem Jackson did on Kendall [Wright] that thing would have been bad, real bad," he said. "It sucks, because for us as defensive players, it’s hard to play this game now. We can’t play the game thinking, and that’s what they are trying to make us do. This game is too fast, guys are too quick. Trying to make a split-second decision, we’re going to hurt ourselves."

Another Titans veteran safety, George Wilson, is far more mild-mannered than Pollard. He, too, was dumbfounded that the hits brought the same fines.

"Those are two totally different types of hits," he said. "I'm not a fan of the system. Ask them. There is no way those two hits are the same."

He's right.

And for those who say Johnson wound up with a concussion and Wright was not hurt: Wright didn't practice Wednesday and was on the injury report with a concussion.

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 1

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 31-28 win over the San Diego Chargers:

Mental toughness: Just how sure were the Texans that they were going to win last night's game?

Midway through the third quarter, safety Danieal Manning and inside linebacker Brian Cushing started chatting about another improbable comeback from years ago. That one was during Manning's rookie year in 2006, when he played for the Bears. You'll remember that as the game that led to then-Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green ranting that the Bears "are who we thought they were."

[+] EnlargeRandy Bullock
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsHouston Texans kicker Randy Bullock and holder Shane Lechler celebrate Bullock's game-winning field goal as time ran out Monday night in San Diego.
Manning brought it up to Cushing as a reminder that these things happen. And because this game felt the same.

"Right in the middle of the third quarter, when it was about 28-14," Cushing said with a chuckle. "We just felt it. We felt that we could do it. Got it done."

With every player I spoke with after the game, I asked why this game was different than other times the Texans have faced big deficits. The answer most often was that this is a more mature team that has been through such adversity before. The Texans were accused of lacking mental toughness last season, and last night's game was a step toward proving that isn't true anymore.

While on the subject of accusations, the Texans turned another one on its head last night. I asked cornerback Johnathan Joseph if the Texans made a statement with the win: "Hopefully so, showing that we’re a resilient team, we can come back and play from behind."

Vintage Dre: Texans tight end Owen Daniels said he thinks Andre Johnson is actually getting better each year. Johnson had 146 yards on 12 catches, eight of which came in the second half as the Texans mounted their comeback. It wasn't easy on his body, but Johnson played like a kid again. He and quarterback Matt Schaub excelled when their team needed them the most.

About that first half: The start of the game was about as bad as it could have gone for the Texans, and they can't ignore that. Last night's win wasn't just a case of coming from behind, it was the biggest comeback in franchise history. That requires a big deficit first.

"If we're mature enough to hang in there and win tonight, we have to be mature enough to know we didn't play very good, too," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.

Every phase of Houston's game struggled. The Texans' offensive and defensive lines got outplayed, they only made it to the red zone once, they allowed 100 percent red-zone efficiency on three trips, and their average drive started 11 yards shy of where the Chargers did. And, of course, the first three plays of the game were a bobbled kickoff return, a Schaub interception, and a 14-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Ryan Mathews. Rivers finished the half with a 122.6 passer rating.

Third-down efficiency was big: In the first half, the Chargers converted 63 percent of their third downs, often with big plays. In the first quarter, they converted a third-and-6 with a 17-yard pass to Eddie Royal, another third-and-6 with an 11-yard pass to Danny Woodhead and a third-and-7 with a 15-yard pass to Antonio Gates. In the second quarter, there was a 34-yard pass to Gates and a 10-yard touchdown pass -- both on third downs.

"Coming into halftime, that’s what we were saying, we’ve got to get off the field on third downs," cornerback Kareem Jackson said. "It definitely swung the game in our favor tremendously."

Indeed, in the second half, the Chargers converted only two.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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HOUSTON -- At 12-4 last season, the Houston Texans had the best record in the young franchise's history, won their second consecutive AFC South championship, became the first professional football team in Houston to win a home playoff game in consecutive years and finished the regular season as one of only two teams to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense.

Doesn't sound like a failed season, does it? But as the franchise has grown and checked off accomplishments, failure has begun to mean anything other than a Super Bowl win.

“We weren’t the last team standing last year, so ultimately we all failed,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “We all didn’t accomplish our goals.”

This year's Texans are more businesslike. Most of this year's team was around for the slide at the end of last season, which coincided with a linebacking corps that took one hit after another even after taking its biggest hit in early October, when it lost Brian Cushing. They shook their heads at three losses in the last four games of the season. The offense mustered only 12 points per game in those three losses -- less than half its season average.

“Everybody was so excited and couldn’t wait for the next season to come around,” receiver Andre Johnson said. “As you can see, we came out of the gate smoking, but at the end we just didn’t finish it the right way. At times, maybe we could have been feeling ourselves or something. I think, I’ve told people this before, I think the game in New England, our last playoff game, it just showed you what kind of team you have to be in order to accomplish that ultimate goal. That was definitely a humbling experience, and we’ll be looking forward to the challenge again.”

Now they return with Cushing back and an additional offensive weapon in first-round draft pick DeAndre Hopkins -- the receiver with the massive, red-gloved hands. They should have more stability on the offensive line and more depth at safety with the additions of a future Hall of Famer (Ed Reed) and a college enforcer (D.J. Swearinger). They have healthy cornerbacks and the reigning defensive player of the year in J.J. Watt, who is sure he can play better than his unreal 2012 season.

They return with an edge they didn't have last year.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Hopkins' impact: It is impossible not to be impressed by Hopkins' skill and athleticism, owed in part to his unusually large hands. Particularly adept at scoring in the red zone while he was at Clemson, Hopkins is expected to help the Texans, who didn't struggle scoring in the red zone last season but did struggle at scoring touchdowns in the red zone relative to the best offenses in the NFL. Hopkins provides a dimension the Texans didn't have in 2012 -- a second receiver defenses should fear, taking some attention from Johnson. The rookie is at his best on contested catches and spends his practices learning from cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Hopkins struggled early in organized team activities, but as training camp has progressed, he has grown more comfortable with just about everything. If he plays in regular-season games like he has in camp, the Texans' offense will improve significantly.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cushing
AP Photo/Pat SullivanWhen linebacker Brian Cushing went down for the season in Week 5, the loss was felt across the Texans' defense.
2. Cushing's return: When Cushing was lost to a torn ACL in Week 5 against the New York Jets, a line of Texans greeted the fallen inside linebacker at the door to the locker room, shaking his hand and offering condolences. Losing Cushing hurt the Texans' safeties and outside linebackers as much as it changed their inside linebacker rotation. The pass rush suffered too.

“When Cush rushes, which we try to rush him a lot from the inside, if they have to pick up a back on him they are in trouble,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We got a big advantage, so they try and pick him up with a lineman. Well, if they do that then the outside guys get a chance to get a back or a better matchup.”

Cushing's return brings back a maniacal, focused intensity that intimidates opponents.

“Brian Cushing is back,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “He's going to bring the attitude back.”

3. When will Reed be healthy? Reed signed with the Texans amid great fanfare. The owner sent his team plane to Atlanta to collect the future Hall of Famer, and the team's official Twitter provided updates along the way. Reed met with coaches, underwent a lengthy physical and then left Houston for a family engagement before returning to sign a three-year deal worth $5 million a year. About a month later, Reed had arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that he thinks he suffered during the Ravens' AFC Championship Game win.

This week, Reed was out of town rehabilitating with a specialist after having spent training camp in Houston working with Texans trainers.

“No, absolutely not,” coach Gary Kubiak said when asked if that meant Reed had a setback. “It’s just something that we’ve made our progress here for a couple of weeks. [Head athletic trainer Geoff Kaplan] has been in contact with this guy. He’s worked with us before, so we wanted him to go see him for a couple of days and basically make sure we’re doing the right things. We’re going to do that for a couple of days each week.”

So far there hasn't been any clarity on when Reed will be available to the Texans or whether he will be able to play in the season opener.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Hopkins
AP Photo/Andy KingRookie DeAndre Hopkins gives Houston a scoring threat in the red zone and a second receiver whom opposing defense should fear.
The Texans have the best defensive player in the NFL in Watt, who in 2012 had, according to his well-traveled defensive coordinator, the best season any defensive lineman has ever had. This was a good team last year that needed some cracks filled. Injuries had a lot to do with the Texans' defensive holes at the end of the season, and those injuries aren't an issue for Houston anymore. Watt also will be healthier this year. Offensively, the Texans have Johnson coming off a career year in receiving yards, running back Arian Foster and a quarterback who will benefit from a more stable offensive line and an extra receiving weapon.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about Schaub, but I expect him to be a lot better this season with the changing personnel around him.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The abundance of linebacker injuries last season hurt the defense and special teams. The Texans still are vulnerable there. A rash of linebacker injuries in training camp has caused players to miss some time. Though none of these injuries were significant, a collection of linebacker injuries that keep players out for even two or three games at a time could be damaging.

Reed's health also could be troubling. Swearinger isn't ready yet, and safety Shiloh Keo has started in Reed's place during camp. Keo has improved since last season and has had a good camp, but he would be a downgrade from departed safety Glover Quin.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Earl Mitchell had about the loudest debut as the Texans' starting nose tackle as one could have. Sure, it was a preseason game, but in 10 snaps Friday against Minnesota, Mitchell had four tackles, three of them for loss, including one sack. He also had one quarterback hit. Mitchell is quick on his feet, powerful and has a new confidence this season. The Houston native says that comes from knowing he entered this season as the starter -- a position well earned.
  • Foster remains on the physically unable to perform list. He initially landed on the list with a calf injury, but that has healed. Now, the Texans are being cautious because of a back injury. I wrote it before and will again: There's no sense in pushing Foster too much right now, especially given the load he takes on during the season.
  • With one full NFL season accrued, receiver Keshawn Martin has made a dramatic improvement on both offense and special teams. It has caught the eye of teammates. Last season, Lestar Jean joined Martin on the active roster. Jean is an incredibly hard worker, but he finds himself back on the bubble two years removed from being an undrafted rookie.
  • The Texans' third-string running back battle took an interesting turn Friday in Minnesota when Cierre Wood, who progressed more slowly at first, seemed to have a better night than fellow undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson. It's far too early to determine a winner in that battle, but those two are ahead, with veteran pickup Deji Karim threatening from a special-teams standpoint.
  • There were times last season when starting cornerback Joseph didn't feel like himself. He had two sports hernias that he didn't even properly identify until after playing in the Pro Bowl. Joseph had surgeries to repair both, and feels healthier than he did all last season. That is great news for the Texans, who pair him opposite the constantly improving Kareem Jackson.
  • It's unclear exactly how long left guard Wade Smith will be out after having his knee scoped Tuesday morning. What's certain, however, is that Smith's absence will give the Texans a chance to test the versatility of sixth-round draft pick David Quessenberry, who started out the offseason playing mostly tackle. Quessenberry made news during the summer because his truck was stolen, then recovered in East Texas with police saying it was being used for human trafficking. More relevant to our purpose is that Quessenberry has been really impressive in camp and willing to learn. Kubiak said he expects both Ben Jones and Quessenberry to see time there with Smith out.
Johnathan Joseph was a revelation in Houston in 2011, playing a very solid season of cornerback after jumping to the Texans as a free agent addition.

Pro Football Focus graded him a plus-11.3 in coverage, and their numbers put him tied for ninth overall in the league among cornerbacks.

Last year, with groin and hamstring injuries, he posted only a plus-2.5 in coverage and was 43rd overall.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsHouston's Johnathan Joseph was limited by injuries last season.
But it wasn’t just the groin and hamstring problems that held him back.

After the season he had surgery to repair sports hernias on both sides.

I wondered how hard it was for him to know he wasn’t right, to not play up to his standards and not to be able to say so as he endured last season.

“You have to just block it out mentally, you have to just put up a wall,” he said. “You’ve got to have confidence in yourself. Obviously the team knows what’s going on, you’ve just got to block the outside world out.

“You want to be sound. You don’t want to be banged up, nicked up. You have to go out and play through it. If you have good teammates, maybe you being at 85 instead of 100 percent, maybe that’s better than another situation, whatever that may be.”

Joseph isn’t sure when he actually suffered the hernias. He started feeling something in practice and didn’t think much about it as he was dealing with the other injuries. But particularly near the end of practices and games he said he could feel a strain right underneath his navel.

“There is only so much you can do to protect that area,” he said. “I didn’t try to hide anything, I didn’t really know about it myself until after the Pro Bowl."

The Texans' other starting cornerback, Kareem Jackson, had a sports hernia at Alabama, and he told Joseph that could be what he had.

“The injury is the result of avulsion or tears in the muscle fibers in the lower abdomen,” according to the national council on strength and fitness.

(He was never listed on an injury report with an abdominal injury, just with groin, knee, quad and hamstring injuries, per KFFL.)

“Sure enough when I went to see the doctor after the season, he told me that I had 30 percent tears on both sides,” Joseph said.

Playing through those show a great deal of toughness. But it would have been nice if the Texans had the sort of depth at cornerback where resting him was more of a possibility.

Surgery was painful, he said, and recovery required he not make any quick, sudden movements. Just laughing hurt.

Joseph said the injury-riddled season was more bad luck than anything.

With Joseph healthy, the Texans expect a player closer to the 2011 version than the 2012 version.

Jackson really blossomed last season, so Houston could have a top tandem at cornerback.

“I think we should be right up there with the top ones when you look around the league,” Joseph said. “Overall body of work, when you look at the responsibilities we have on our defense, I think we’re right there with anyone else you’d have at the top.”
How does each AFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Houston Texans

News that No. 1 cornerback Johnathan Joseph had sports hernias repaired early in the offseason was actually a good development. He was even more hurt than we knew last year, which serves to explain why he was hardly the player in 2012 he had been in 2011. A healthy Joseph will be much better. Kareem Jackson blossomed as the second corner, and Brice McCain returns as a fairly steady nickel. Danieal Manning is the strong safety with Ed Reed roaming and ball hawking as the deeper guy. Rookie D.J. Swearinger should work as the third safety and be an upgrade over the two guys who played in that role a year ago. He’s also insurance for the aging Reed. Corner depth is a concern, but isn’t that the case for almost every team? I expect big things from this group.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are counting on free-agent addition Greg Toler as a starting corner opposite Vontae Davis. If he pans out as they project, they will improve. If he doesn’t, the depth is poor with Cassius Vaughn still in the mix. Darius Butler is a quality nickel cornerback. Antoine Bethea should be back to form when given a better partner at safety in free-agent acquisition LaRon Landry, provided Landry stays healthy. Safety depth has Joe Lefeged at the head of the line. He can be productive in spot duty, but if they need him for a long stretch, it’ll be an issue. Toler’s production in an expanded role and Landry’s health are the two big keys.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have an incredibly young group. Safety Dwight Lowery and likely starting cornerback Alan Ball are entering their sixth seasons. The other starting safety will be John Cyprien, a second-round pick, and the other starting cornerback will be Dwayne Gratz, a third-rounder. Depth is a major question. The nickelback could be the wise old man of the group -- Marcus Trufant -- or second-year man Mike Harris or a player to be determined. Primary depth will come from three more rookies: corner Demetrius McCray and Jeremy Harris and safety Josh Evans. Cyprien already looks excellent, and Gratz was very good in minicamp. Still, inexperience will be a big factor in this defensive backfield.

Tennessee Titans

Free safety Michael Griffin's game has dropped off significantly in recent years. At least part of it has been the team’s inability to allow him to be the center fielder, which is what he should be best at. With veterans Bernard Pollard and George Wilson added to man the strong safety spot, Griffin has a chance to be a lot better. Jason McCourty is a topflight corner. The other job can be wrestled away from Alterraun Verner as the Titans look to play more man coverage with Tommie Campbell or rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson in contention. Coty Sensabaugh is a developing nickel, and Verner has a knack for the job as well. They need a better push up front to help them all out.
Rolando McClain's early retirement from the NFL comes three years after the Oakland Raiders made him the eighth overall choice in the 2010 draft.



While McClain is inviting derision, I wondered whether he was even the most disappointing choice from the first round of that 2010 class. He would fit right in with the 2009 group, for sure.

A quick check of games started by 2010 first-rounders showed four players with 48 starts in 48 possible regular-season games. Three of those four players were from the NFC West: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis of the San Francisco 49ers, and Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks.

Tyson Alualu, the player Jacksonville controversially selected 10th overall, rounds out the quartet.

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (42) and Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung (37) were relatively close behind. Dan Williams, chosen 26th overall by the Arizona Cardinals that year, ranked 26th on the list with 21 starts over the past three seasons.

All starts aren't quality starts, of course. McClain ranks relatively high on the list with 38 starts despite his bust status. Anyone familiar with the NFL would rather have Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (23 starts) than Alualu, who has struggled with knee trouble and generally been just OK.

First-round picks from 2010 have combined for 21 Pro Bowl honors.

Maurkice Pouncey leads the way with three. Thomas is one of five players with two. Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Eric Berry and Jermaine Gresham are the others.

Iupati and Okung are part of an eight-man grouping with one Pro Bowl. Ryan Mathews, Thomas, Devin McCourty, Gerald McCoy, C.J. Spiller and Trent Williams are the others.

Iupati, Pouncey, Suh, Thomas and Pierre-Paul have been first-team Associated Press All-Pro once apiece.

Bradford was offensive rookie of the year. Suh won defensive rookie of the year.
Glover Quin Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesA low franchise tag number relative to other positions will make it easier for the Texans to keep safety Glover Quin, if they choose to use the tag on the pending free agent.
The free-agent market for safeties could actually be pretty good.

Among those with expiring contracts are Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, the Giants’ Kenny Phillips, Atlanta’s William Moore, San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson and Houston’s Glover Quin.

It’s a tantalizing list, but it’s sure to shrink.

That pesky franchise tag is dangling out there, threatening to keep quality players at a position of need for Tennessee and Indianapolis from becoming free agents.

At many positions the tag can be prohibitively high. But the new CBA drove the numbers down. Instead of the tag equaling the average of the five highest-paid players at the position, like it was under the old CBA, the new formula is more complex. It uses the average of the five highest-paid players at the position over the past five years and figures in the salary cap, too.

Long story short: Safeties will have a modest tag number of about $6.798 million. Only tight ends and kickers/punters are slated to be lower.

Should teams keep a quality guy for another year for less than $7 million or try to replace him? For most teams tagging a safety isn’t a tough call at all. I’d guess Byrd, Goldson and Quin will all get tagged if they don’t get long-term deals. If that’s the case, an intriguing safety pool dries up a good deal. Players such as Moore and Phillips, if they are not tagged, could wind up in advantageous negotiating positions.

That’s one reason George Wilson, recently released by the Bills, might be wise to wait. He has a head start -- free agency begins March 12 -- and is slated to visit Detroit Thursday a day after he was in Tennessee. But if supply shrinks before free agency starts, demand for him could go up.

For many years, safeties and guards have been relatively cheap players. Many roster architects put a higher priority on other positions, believing it was easier to find serviceable safeties or guards.

Some franchises believe they can draft corners who come up a bit short at the position and shift them inside. Quin came into the league as a corner out of New Mexico. Jacksonville free safety Dwight Lowery, acquired from the Jets in a 2010 trade, played cornerback for his first two years in New York.

Now, it seems safeties are being viewed as more important, but the price tags haven’t necessarily caught up to any new thinking.

“I don’t think people really understand the importance of safety,” Goldson told me at the Super Bowl in a chat about the low franchise tag. “Safety is definitely like quarterback on defense. Everybody looks at [middle linebackers] as more of the captains, but safeties are pretty much the ones who are running the show.

“They are smart football players, they understand defenses and get guys lined up, make adjustments on the fly and they have to know everything. They have to know as much as quarterbacks do on offense.

In Houston, the secondary was not nearly as good in 2012 as it was in 2011. Still, the Texans like their top five guys -- corners Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain and safeties Danieal Manning and Quin.

Quin rates as their most significant pending free agent.

He’s a versatile guy, a converted corner who probably still hasn’t peaked. I expect the team will do what it has to in order to retain him, though the Texans don’t have a lot of cap freedom.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Quin said. “What I would hope happens is a good deal, a long-term deal to stay in Houston, obviously.”

The adjustment of the formula for determining the tags in the new CBA is another example of how poorly the players fared in the deal. Most reports of the change in the tag equation suggested the owners had slipped one past the NFLPA.

The positional groupings for tags also make little sense.

Defensive ends and defensive tackles each have their own number. But on the other side of the ball there is simply an "offensive linemen" umbrella that covers tackles, guards and centers despite the differences in the positions and their prices. It's too broad, which is great for interior guys but terrible for tackles who are worth more.

As for the judgment of the worth of a good safety …

In 2011 the Chargers determined Eric Weddle was worth $19 million guaranteed and as much as $40 million over five years. He’s continued to be excellent for them after getting the deal. In 2012, after initially tagging Michael Griffin, the Titans decided he was worth $35 million over five years with $15 million guaranteed. He remains a symbol of their defensive struggles and needs to be surrounded by better people.

To have a chance to make the Griffin deal look OK, the Titans need to pair him with a better player. If they can’t land Moore, Phillips or Wilson, that guy will have to arrive via the draft.

He must show up somehow.

If the Texans want to maximize their chances to play good defense, they need to hold on to Quin. If the Colts want to improve, they should upgrade from Tom Zbikowski.

The AFC South could be part of getting that franchise tag to grow.

Goldson says the number will rise, that safeties won’t be near the bottom of the list forever.

“I think we’ll get to that point eventually,” he said. “I think the market will go up. I would hope I help drive it up.”
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 which 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.

AFC South wrap: The division in 2012

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans. I’ve never seen someone so disruptive up front. The guy’s got the complete package. He’s incredibly instinctive, knowing when to stop rushing and pull up, looking to bat down a pass. He also understands the lane into which a quarterback might be looking to throw. He simply manhandles some blockers -- swimming past them, bowling them backward, speeding around them or knifing between two guys. Some blockers have had absolutely no answer for him, and even if a team tried to take plays as far away from him as possible, he often tracked those plays and got involved in stopping them.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Brett Davis/US PresswireJ.J. Watt needs two more sacks to tie Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks in a season.
Early in the season he talked about wanting to redefine the 3-4 end position, which hasn’t traditionally been a stat position. Later Antonio Smith pointed out how often Watt is really lining up at tackle. He’s not likely to win MVP based on what the league’s best quarterbacks and Adrian Peterson (despite my thinking that the running back is not worthy of the award) are doing. But his ability to push an offense backward so often has been a tremendous factor in an excellent season for the Texans. The other three teams would be wise to reinforce their offensive lines, because it’s reasonable to expect Watt will be a handful for protections and run blocking for years to come.

Biggest disappointment: The pass rushes of the Jaguars and the Titans required offseason attention. Neither team did enough to find a way to disrupt opposing quarterbacks consistently. The Jaguars go into the final game of the season with the worst sacks-per-play average in the NFL and a total of only 18 sacks. Jacksonville’s big addition was second-round pick Andre Branch, who couldn’t hold onto a starting job and finished with one sack in 12 games and is on IR. The Jags played nine games in which they produced either one sack or no sacks. Tennessee has 32 sacks and is close to the middle of the pack. But it’s not enough for a defense with a lot of kids in the back seven and bad safety play. Tennessee got better results than Jacksonville from its newcomer, free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley (five sacks), but he didn’t offer the game-to-game and play-to-play threat Tennessee so desperately needed.

Joe Cullen’s been in place for three seasons as Jacksonville’s defensive line coach. He’s a good coach and motivator, but he did not get the production the defense had to have. His counterpart in Nashville, Tracy Rocker, came from Auburn in 2011 and hasn’t proved to be an effective NFL position coach. Pass-rush coach Keith Millard was brought in to help the rush and the blitz, but it’s hard to see a major difference as a result of his presence. The Titans got shredded by the best quarterbacks they faced, from Tom Brady on opening day to Aaron Rodgers last week.

Offensive player of the year, rookie of the year, fourth-quarter player of the year: Andrew Luck has thrown too many interceptions in his rookie season. His stat line is hardly cause for a parade. He dug himself some holes. But leading his team to 10 wins, seven of them in comeback fashion, and getting into the playoffs does a lot to reduce the importance of those turnovers. He showed a great talent for climbing out of those holes. He was capable of digesting everything the first time around, handling Bruce Arians’ very vertical offense, the absence of coach Chuck Pagano, an often ineffective defense and a less-than-watertight offensive line with aplomb.

Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have strong cases for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, which may never have been so hotly contested. We may see all three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs. In the AFC South, Luck is the quarterback who was asked to do the most from the start, and he was the quarterback who did the most. Rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton is already a good player for the Colts. If you took Hilton and put him on the Titans or the Jaguars, how would he fare? Nowhere near as well as he fared playing with Luck in their first years in the NFL, I feel certain.

Worst injuries: The Jaguars really suffered because Daryl Smith and Clint Session were absent from the linebacking corps. Smith just returned last week from a groin injury and Session never made it back from multiple concussions suffered in 2011, his first season in Jacksonville. The corners all took turns missing time, and safety Dwight Lowery played only nine games. The loss of playmakers really dented a defense that plummeted in the rankings from 2011 to 2012.

Tennessee’s offensive line was not good enough, and revamping the interior needs to be a major offseason priority. The Titans lost starting center Eugene Amano in the preseason and right guard Leroy Harris halfway through the year. For the last quarter of the season, they were also down left guard Steve Hutchinson and right tackle David Stewart. It’s hard for them to give Jake Locker a real chance playing behind a line with four reserves. Still, he could have shown far more in his chances when he was healthy.

The division’s two worst teams lost a lot of time with their young quarterbacks, too. Locker missed five games with a shoulder injury, and Blaine Gabbert played through a shoulder injury before adding a forearm issue that ended his season after 10 games. Looking ahead to 2013, the status of each as a long-term answer is not what it once was.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Bruce Arians stepped in for coach Chuck Pagano and led a team coming off a two-win season to the playoffs.
Coaches of the year: Pagano and Arians of the Colts. It's been a storybook season for Indianapolis, which rallied around Pagano. He learned he had leukemia after just three games and handed the team to Arians while he underwent treatment. His fight gave the team a purpose, and it responded by playing better than the sum of its parts. Behind the scenes, Pagano was more involved than many might imagine.

But it was Arians conveying the messages, overseeing the game-planning, leading and, as offensive coordinator, calling the plays. He did a masterful job in overseeing the team, the offense and the rookie quarterback. Now, with Pagano back in place, he’ll drift into the background. He’s 60, which will work against his getting a head-coaching job. His work, however, should earn him consideration for some of the jobs that are about to open. That was quite an audition. And just about every team hiring a coach will need a quarterback developer.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

I want to emphasize one thing about this All-AFC South Team. Wade Smith is measured against the division’s left guards, not against the rest of the selections. There are miles between Smith as a player and Watt as a player, and if we measure a guard against a defensive end who’s the division MVP, things look askew.

One I’ll get crushed for: Many of you argued with me on Twitter when I wrote that I would take Luck over Matt Schaub as the third Pro Bowl quarterback, so I am sure you won’t like the choice of quarterback here. Luck struggled more than Schaub, for sure. But he was asked to do far more than Schaub and produced seven comeback wins, leading a team that’s really lacking in talent to an improbable playoff spot. There were no expectations for the Colts, and Luck and the team delivered. There were huge expectations on the Texans, and Schaub and the team delivered. My gut continues to prefer Luck’s year. That doesn’t mean I dislike what Schaub’s done.

Just misses: Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan, Texans outside linebacker Brooks Reed, Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.

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