NFL Nation: Midseason 09 AFC South

Midseason Report: Texans

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:46
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Running back Steve Slaton's sophomore season has not fulfilled the promise shown in his rookie year.
Power Rankings: Preseason: 19. This week: 13.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: The Texas, at 5-3, were two games over .500 at the midpoint of the season for the first time in their history. But Sunday’s penalty-riddled loss at Indianapolis knocked them back a bit. Still, they are in position to post a mark better than 8-8 for the first time and could earn a spot in the AFC’s playoff field.

While they need better offensive balance, Matt Schaub’s been outstanding leading the NFL’s third-ranked passing offense. And after a shaky start, the defense has improved. Narrow losses to division foes Jacksonville and Indianapolis could be ones the Texans are left to regret the most.

Disappointments: Running back Steve Slaton was electric as a rookie and seemed to be a solution to run-game woes. But he’s regressed with a rushing average of 3.1 yards a carry and major fumbles that got him benched early in a game in Buffalo and still have him playing a reduced role.

Chris Brown, who was supposed to fill the role of the big complementary running back, proved he’s not the right man to get the ball when the team needs a tough yard. That wasn’t his strength when he was with the Titans, either.

Surprises: Since Gary Kubiak became coach in 2006, the Texans have rolled through starting strong safeties and always seemed unsettled at the spot with unreliable positioning and unsure tackling. But Kansas City castaway Bernard Pollard, with an endorsement from Houston’s new defensive back coach David Gibbs, was signed. His insertion into the lineup has coincided with a real defensive renaissance.

Rookie strongside linebacker Brian Cushing has been a solid player from the start, helping upgrade the front and combining with DeMeco Ryans to be a formidable linebacking duo.

Outlook: Injuries have hurt, with starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel and standout tight end Owen Daniels all lost for the season. Even without them, the Texans have enough firepower to be a factor in the AFC wild card race. But after the sloppy showing in Indianapolis, where the Texans still could have forced overtime but for a missed 42-yard field goal by Kris Brown at the end, there is still a sense from the outside that there is something missing.

If they can figure out what it is and add it, the Texans finally might fulfill their expectations.

Midseason Report: Titans

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:45
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE
Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher stayed with Kerry Collins at quarterback until owner Bud Adams put in a call to switch to Vince Young.
Power Rankings: Preseason: 7. This week: 23.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: They’ve been as surprising as any team in the league, and not in a good way. Before these Titans, no team in history had ever followed up a season where it started 10-0 with an 0-6 start in the next one. Things have gotten better in the last two weeks. Even if the turnaround continues, it’s going to wind up being too little too late for a team that came into the season with what seemed like reasonable Super Bowl expectations.

A 59-0 loss at New England qualifies as rock bottom and prompted owner Bud Adams to call for, and get, a change at quarterback from Kerry Collins to Vince Young.

Disappointments: The Titans and Jeff Fisher completely overestimated what they had at the season’s start in terms of the return game and in depth at cornerback. Ryan Mouton’s trouble fielding punts killed them. When a struggling veteran secondary was hit by injuries, rookies Jason McCourty and Mouton were not close to ready to substitute.

A receiving corps including Justin Gage and upgraded with a free agent (Nate Washington) and a first-rounder (Kenny Britt) dropped way too many passes. A Pro Bowl selection in 2008, safety Michael Griffin’s play dropped off substantially.

Surprises: Young had lost the faith of the coaching staff and Fisher fought to keep Collins in the lineup. Still, Young’s been efficient and effective in two games as the starter.

Young’s work, and everybody’s, has been made easier by Chris Johnson. The second-year running back’s been remarkable. Through eight games he is the NFL’s leading rusher, on pace for a 2,000-yard season. And if he maintains it, his 6.7 yards per carry would be the highest by the league’s rushing leader since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Outlook: A 6-10 record now seems possible, and that would be more than enough to ensure Fisher’s job safety as well as a high draft pick. The remainder of the season amounts to an audition for Young, who’s got a $4.25 million roster bonus and a 2010 cap number of more than $14 million pending. They need to decide where they are heading at quarterback.

The team is loaded with free agents to-be like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Nick Harper and Kevin Mawae. Odds are major roster turnover and a big youth movement are on the horizon.

Midseason Report: Jaguars

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:43
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Power Rankings: Preseason: 25. This week: 22.

2009 Schedule/Results

AP Photo/Stephen Morton
Jacksonville cornerback Derek Cox leads the team in interceptions.
Where they stand: At 4-4 the Jaguars are still in the AFC playoff picture despite frustrating inconsistency. Things have been difficult for the most part, but that’s to be expected for a team that purged the roster of bad seeds and bad contracts, didn’t spend big dollars to bring in any help and has looked to four rookies as starters.

They work hard, have stayed true to their coaches' messages. They have not gotten too frustrated by the lack of fan support. The Jaguars haven’t played in front of a home sellout or had a home game on TV in their market.

Disappointments: Last year’s top two picks needed to blossom this season to give the defensive front a boost. It hasn’t happened. While Derrick Harvey has improved, the team’s downplayed expectations for him to be a big-time sack guy, which is the natural expectation for a defensive end when a team traded into the No. 8 slot to draft him. Fellow defensive end Quentin Groves found his way back into the starting lineup last week, but has ranked as low as third-stringer and special teamer.

If the two were more productive, pass rushing wouldn’t be such a struggle and a lot of things might be easier.

Surprises: Defensive rookies out of non-football powerhouses have been impact guys. Third-round defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, from Temple, has been productive and steady whether he’s been part of a three-man or a four-man defensive line. And third-rounder Derek Cox, from William & Mary, has been mature beyond his years as a starting cornerback, playing with poise and confidence while pulling in as many interceptions as Rashean Mathis (two).

In a broader sense, the success in three games against division rivals in the first four weeks of the season rated as a shock. After a two-point opening day loss at Indianapolis, they won at Houston and knocked off Tennessee.

Outlook: If the Jaguars can get on any sort of roll, they can stay in the playoff picture. They’ve won two in a row only once so far. The next three weeks don’t stack up as especially difficult with games at the Jets, against Buffalo and at San Francisco. But there is no telling what the Jaguars will bring from week to week. One reason for optimism is the team’s switch back to the 4-3, which seems a much more natural scheme for many of the players on defense.

Things have been pretty good offensively with Maurice Jones-Drew's NFL leading 11 touchdowns and Mike Sims-Walker's emergence as a No. 1 receiver. It’s the defense that needs to make a leap for things to go well.

Midseason Report: Colts

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:42
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Power Rankings: Preseason: 6. This week: 2.

2009 Schedule/Results

Where they stand: The Colts are the AFC’s lone unbeaten team and as they prepare for their showdown Sunday night against New England, they rate as the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl in Miami on February 7, 2010.

 
  Andy Lyons/Getty Images
 Third-round draft pick Jerraud Powers has been a pleasant surprise at cornerback for the Colts.
They’ve got the league’s top passing offense led by the MVP frontrunner Peyton Manning and the league’s top scoring defense led by whirling dervish Dwight Freeney, who’s got a sack in every game. In Jim Caldwell’s first half season as Tony Dungy’s successor, things have gone as well as could possibly have been expected.

Disappointments: Incumbent left tackle Tony Ugoh lost his starting job to Charlie Johnson and currently rates so low among the team’s offensive linemen that he’s not even dressed for the Colts’ last three games. Another lineman drafted high and expected to be a long-term answer, guard Mike Pollak, has shared time with journeyman Kyle DeVan, who played in 2009 with the Boise Burn of ArenaFootball2. The run game continues to struggle, with only 85.4 yards a game and just 3.4 a carry from lead back Joseph Addai.

Defensive tackle Ed Johnson was supposed to spur a run defense revival on his second chance, but word is he was lazy and not in shape and the team surprised a lot of people by cutting him after five games.

Surprises: As a result of injuries, the Colts have gotten four starts from Kelvin Hayden and none from Marlin Jackson, the two players the team expected to be locked in as their top cornerbacks. That’s a scenario that would undo the season for virtually every team in the league. But the Colts have gotten great play from third-round draft pick Jerraud Powers and undrafted rookie Jacob Lacey, with veteran Tim Jennings working as the extra corner.

Indianapolis ranks an impressive ninth against the pass even without those two corners and with only two games from another secondary starter, strong safety Bob Sanders who’s now out for the season along with Jackson.

Outlook: The Colts have a tough stretch coming, with New England Sunday night followed by trips to Baltimore and Houston for a rematch with the Texans. Their first loss, or two, will likely arrive in that span, but they should still wind up with the top seed in the conference and line up for two home games in the playoffs.

The question is whether Caldwell can jolt them out of the first-round funk that’s seen them bow out of the postseason quickly to San Diego two years in a row after winning Super Bowl XLI.

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