NFL Nation: Richard Smith

At any moment, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling on the appeal of Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and three other players in the New Orleans Saints bounty investigation. While we wait, I wanted to bring to your attention an important revelation that further calls into question what the NFL has claimed as evidence against Hargrove, thus meriting an eight-game suspension.

Last week, NFLPA outside counsel Richard Smith revealed to the New York Times that a voice recognition analyst concluded that Hargrove's voice was not the one recorded saying "Bobby, give me my money" in an NFL Films video used as evidence that Hargrove knew about and participated in the bounty program.

Here's the relevant portion of the Times article:
"Smith hired a voice recognition expert to review and analyze the sentence. Smith said the expert had concluded that the harmonics of Hargrove’s voice did not match the voice on the tape, that Hargrove’s lips had not been visible and that the first word was not "Bobby" but instead the result of a player and coach talking at once.

"No one can say beyond doubt that it’s Anthony Hargrove speaking," Smith said.

We've been through this issue on several occasions, and Hargrove himself stated last month: "It is not my voice. Anyone who knows me well knows that it is not me."

As we've discussed, there would be no credible reason for Hargrove to ask Saints defensive end Bobby McCray to pay him money for a hit he was not involved in. When you watch the video -- link here with an arrow added for emphasis -- Hargrove's lips are obscured and can't be seen when the words are audible. At the same time, you see defensive tackle Remi Ayodele -- who was involved in the hit against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre -- turning to teammate Will Smith. (Ayodele's agent told NFL.com that he "doesn't recall hearing that statement.")

We've acknowledged that the NFL mischaracterized Hargrove's official declaration, suggesting he confirmed his knowledge and participation when in fact he acknowledged only that Saints coaches requested he "play dumb" when asked about the bounty by NFL investigators.

Meanwhile, a former Saints practice squad player, who was standing near Hargrove at that moment on the sideline, told CBSSports.com that Hargrove wasn't the one speaking in the video.

I realize the NFL's discipline program does not require the same standards for evidence as a court of law might. But again, it's worth asking whether anything the NFL has cited against Hargrove has credible merit.

We'll keep you posted.
There’s no doubt the Denver Broncos should be disappointed that they are losing defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

When the Broncos hired Allen last year, they knew he’d likely get some head-coaching opportunities, but they thought he’d stick around Denver for two or three years. Yet Allen was plucked by Oakland as its head coach after one season as head coach. The Broncos’ defense improved immensely under Allen’s guidance.

Now Denver's defense will have its seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons. Think about that. Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams have both worn a Denver uniform since 2004. They will now have their seventh coach in seven years.

The transition this year will not nearly be as difficult because Denver head coach John Fox is defensive-minded. While Allen did a good job, Fox deserves a lot of credit for Denver’s improvement and will ensure the Broncos don’t take a step backward on defense.

I think the two names we have to look at as a candidate to replace Allen are former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio and Denver linebacker coach Richard Smith. Del Rio was a coordinator for Fox in Carolina and Smith is extremely experienced as well.

The Broncos will miss Allen, but I think they are in better shape on defense than it may appear.

Here is a look at the Broncos’ defensive coordinators in the past six years: Larry Coyer (2006, fired), Jim Bates (2007, fired), Bob Slowik (2008, fired), Mike Nolan (2009, departed in mutual decision), Don Martindale (2010, fired), Allen (2011, hired by Oakland).
It will be interesting to see how Dennis Allen builds his staff in Oakland.

lastname
Allen
Allen, the youngest head coach in the NFL, spent only one year as a defensive coordinator in Denver. He spent the previous eight years in Atlanta and in New Orleans.

Allen’s most important hire will be offensive coordinator. With Allen's defensive background, he will need a strong offensive leader.

I’d have to think incumbent Oakland offensive coordinator Al Saunders has a solid chance of staying on. He is reportedly in Mobile, Ala., scouting the Senior Bowl for the Raiders. Allen is in Mobile, so the two will get a chance to talk immediately.

Saunders would provide stability to the Oakland offense, which is on steadier footing than the Raiders defense. Make no mistake, former head coach Hue Jackson ran the offensive show in Oakland. But Saunders is familiar with the Raiders offense and is capable of running it.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if assistant offensive line coach Steve Wisniewski sticks around, along with some other offensive coaches. Wisniewski is a bright, young coach and the uncle of Raiders guard Stefen Wisniewski, who was a standout out as a rookie.

Because Allen will run the defense, the defensive coordinator job is not as important. But perhaps someone such as Denver linebackers coach Richard Smith (who will also be a candidate for Allen's spot on the Broncos staff) could interest Allen.
Andre Johnson/Matt SchaubBob Levey/Icon SMIAndre Johnson and Matt Schaub help lead a Texans team that has a clear path to the division title.
It’s a bit easy to say the AFC South should belong to the Houston Texans this season.

But I’m joining the chorus and saying it anyway: If this team can’t win this division, it’ll be time for owner Bob McNair to crumple up the plan and aim it for the closest trash can.

The Texans have a championship-caliber quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back (maybe two or three of those) all working with a smart and skilled offensive line that understands how it needs to work.

Mindset is the only question mark on offense, starting with Matt Schaub’s ability to rise to big moments. Even if he’s only average in that category, with Peyton Manning out for at least the bulk of the season, Schaub is the best signal-caller in the division by a wide margin.

The Schaub-Andre Johnson-Arian Foster combination is among the league’s best. Who has a better trio?

Philadelphia perhaps, with Michael Vick-LeSean McCoy-DeSean Jackson. Maybe Matt Ryan-Roddy White-Michael Turner in Atlanta. If we sub tight ends for running backs, San Diego with Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson is in the conversation as is Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireThe Texans' defense had an outstanding performance in its first game under coordinator Wade Phillips.
The revamped Houston defense was outstanding in the opener. Sure, much of that had to do with the Colts' offense in its first game with Kerry Collins playing in place of Manning. But we saw all the elements of a defense that can win games -- stout run defense, consistent pressure on the quarterback, quality coverage, the ability to cope with sudden-change situations.

One can see swagger and confidence in the body language of guys thrilled to be working under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I think he’s too low key, but it can clearly work for him as a coordinator. He has a way of keeping things simple and keeping the mood light, and players have bought in. I never sensed a similar feeling when Richard Smith or Frank Bush manned the post, though they obviously didn’t have the same quality of personnel Phillips will enjoy.

On special teams, Neil Rackers has a big leg that will make a lot of touchbacks and long field goals. Jacoby Jones and Danieal Manning can provide a jolt in the return game. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann isn’t proven yet but has a big leg.

The schedule is hardly a breeze, but look at the quarterbacks they could face: Collins twice, Chad Henne, Matt Hasselbeck twice (or maybe rookie Jake Locker), Luke McCown twice (or maybe rookie Blaine Gabbert), Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.

Houston’s been called a soft team, a finesse franchise. Not too many soft teams produce the NFL rushing champion the way this team produced Foster last season.

If the Texans' offensive blocking scheme amounts to a finesse one, so be it. The Colts have won the division eight times in nine seasons with a lot of finesse. They’re fine with you insulting them over it while admiring their success.

The Texans can show their toughness this season in how they stand up to Pittsburgh on Oct. 2 and at Baltimore on Oct. 16 and in how they fare in their games with the Jaguars.

The Colts' issues should be a huge assist for the Texans, as will the fact that the Titans and Jaguars are trying to stay afloat with temporary quarterbacks while developing top-10 draft picks in Locker and Gabbert. Although both teams may be ascending, their talent doesn’t match Houston’s.

If the Texans can make it through the first three-fourths of the season with a good record and in good health, they should be golden with a home stretch against Cincinnati (away), Carolina, Indianapolis (away) and Tennessee.

It sets up for success.

If this team folds under the expectations, if it cannot go get what’s so attainable, it’s going to have to be dismantled. It will require no more Mr. Nice Guy from McNair, who will have to part ways with a lot of nice guys he truly admires, starting with GM Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak. McNair will have no choice but to look for a different tone after a house cleaning.

I don’t think that’s how things will play out. I think Manning’s injury is a big break that opens the door, a door the Jaguars and Titans are not ready to approach. The Texans are more than talented enough to storm through it if they don’t complicate things. Run the ball. Work the play-action and bootleg game off of it. Rush the passer. Build from there as the season goes on and finish strong.

Watch pundits pick you to be a team that can do damage in the playoffs, and respond to it.

It sounds simple.

It just might be.

Broncos likely to switch to 4-3

January, 25, 2011
1/25/11
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The Denver Broncos just officially announced the hiring of New Orleans secondary coach Dennis Allen as their defensive coordinator.

Denver also hired linebackers coach Richard Smith and linebacker coach Ron Milus. Both Smith and Milus were with John Fox in Carolina. Fox has now brought five of his Carolina coaches with him to Denver. The pair both coached in Denver under Mike Shanahan and Smith was a defensive coordinator in the NFL.

Allen, 38, is beginning his first stint as an NFL defensive coordinator. He is considered one of the bright young defensive minds in the league and in addition to Smith, Allen can also rely on Fox –- a defensive specialist -- as he grows into his new job. The Broncos hope Allen will bring stability to a unit that has had six different coordinators in six seasons. They were last in the NFL in 2010 in total defense and points allowed under coordinator Don Martindale.

Fox has previously said he was open to running either a 4-3 or a 3-4 defensive front scheme. Fox ran a 4-3 in Carolina and Allen has been coaching a 4-3. Denver has used a 3-4 defense for the past two seasons and team will likely add a lot of players on the defensive line and linebacker, so a switch to the 4-3 would matter much.

The key to the switch will be finding to effectively use Elvis Dumervil. Shanahan drafted Dumervil and the fifth-year linebacker flourished in a 3-4 defense in 2009. Dumervil, who was given a huge contract last summer, led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009 but missed the entire 2010 season with a pectoral injury. He will probably be moved back to a rush end spot in the 4-3.

With Allen being hired, there are now two key coaching openings remaining in the AFC West. Kansas City needs an offensive coordinator and Oakland needs a defensive coordinator.
 
  Bob Levey/Getty Images
  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the Texans defense have a new attitude.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- React or act?

Give a group of guys who've spent a lot of time doing the former to do the latter and you'll be greeted with glee.

That's the Houston Texans' defense's feelings for first-year coordinator Frank Bush, promoted by Gary Kubiak to replace Richard Smith.

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"His leadership and the way he comes off to the players, it's a different feeling," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's a different attitude, a different mentality which carries over to the guys and our attitude. We're a lot more physical team. I don't want to say we were too passive.

"I think we had guys thinking too much, we had so many checks and this and that. It was too much, you're thinking so much to where you can't just line up and go tee off on someone. Now we can just line up and get it, there isn't so much too it. It's simplified to where we don't have all the checks."

The primary word being used for the team's new approach is "aggressive," and that's not a term that characterized them too often with Smith at the controls. The mild mannered Bush has the defense excited and determined not to let the Texans be known exclusively as an offensive team.

While Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels will go a long way towards determining if the Texans can build on consecutive 8-8 seasons and make the playoffs, Mario Williams, Ryans and linebacker Brian Cushing, a first-round pick, bring a good dose of star power to the defense.

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"They are getting tougher and tougher to go against every day," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "They've improved themselves with a bunch of players, they've been rushing the passer better and they are making it tough on us."

To graduate to being a playoff team, the Texans have to reverse some trends. They'll need to play better early so they aren't left to fight so hard to get back to .500. They need to fare better within the division, finding ways to finish off their primary rivals when they have the chance.

They expect the Titans and Colts to be strong again. The Texans will likely have to chase one or both of those teams down.

Anything less than double digit wins and a playoff berth won't be considered a success.

Key questions

1. Can the offense fix turnover and red-zone issues?

The Texans ranked third in total offense last year, but it didn't mean as much as it should have because they were 17th in points per game. The two big themes heading into the 2009 season are cutting turnovers and getting better production once they get inside the 20.

They were minus-10 in takeaways/giveaways last year, third worst in the NFL. They scored touchdowns on just 45.9 percent of their red zone possessions.

"I think if we can make those two adjustments, we can win at least two more games," Shanahan said. "If we can do that I think we will be a playoff team. We were a good offense last year statistically. But that was the first thing I talked about on the first day of OTAs this year, that doesn't mean anything. The top three offenses in the league last year were New Orleans, Denver and us. None of us made the playoffs. Moving the ball does not matter unless you move it across that goal line."

2. Do they have enough in the secondary?

Their top cornerback, Dunta Robinson, has not been with the team because he's upset about getting slapped with a franchise tag, but he will ultimately sign it and play for a guarantee of nearly $10 million.

Jacques Reeves will miss the start of the season with a fractured fibula, which means Fred Bennett will get some time as the second starter. Rookie Glover Quin is currently the nickel and they like his physical play.

But the safeties and the defensive backfield depth are question marks, even if the defensive front gets more of a pa
ss rush and forces the ball out quicker. Can they get steady enough play from Eugene Wilson and second-year man Dominique Barber, the presumptive starters at safety on opening day against the Jets?

 
  Defensive end Mario Williams
  Defensive end Mario Williams accounted for 12 of the Texans' 25 sacks last season.
3. Does Williams have enough pass rush help?

The Texans had just 25 sacks in 2008, fewest in the division. And Williams accounted for 12 of them. Houston made moves intended to get pressure from elsewhere -- first by signing free agent defensive lineman Antonio Smith, then by drafting Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin with their first two picks. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar is a fiery type who preaches pocket penetration and may just be the team's biggest addition.

An effective rush from the front can help take a lot of pressure off the secondary, which ranks as the team's weak link.

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Ideally, Jacoby Jones would be in line to replace Kevin Walter as the No. 2 receiver in a year if the team doesn't or can't re-sign Walter. But Jones lacks maturity and consistency and his job security could be in jeopardy. The team is looking at kickoff return man Andre Davis, a better receiver, as a punt return possibility. If Davis succeeds there, Jones could be expendable.

Jones can be very good, but he can also put the ball on the ground too much as a punt returner. And Kubiak is not a fan of specialists. He wants football players who can fill multiple roles. That describes Davis, who can cover kicks as well as return them in addition to catching passes. It may not cover Jones much longer.

Newcomer to watch

Smith
Smith wasn't regarded as any sort of premier pass rusher when he hit free agency. But he's a versatile lineman who is very good with his hands. If things go the way the Texans hope, he can be an early down end and a third down tackle, having a positive influence and taking on a leadership role for youngsters Williams, Amobi Okoye and Barwin.

"He's a kid that can move from outside to inside, he's a big man that's a real good athlete," said Bush, who also worked with him in Arizona. "He's a 285-pound guy with good knee bend. He's extremely tough, has no problem playing over a center, guard or tackle. He takes a lot of pride in his performance and he came up through the ranks the hard way, he honed his craft and made himself what he is.

"That whole sense of a guy that came from virtually nothing to what he is right now kind of helps our team. Other guys can see it and aspire to be that way."

Observation deck

Antwaun Molden got hurt in his rookie season when the team wanted to bring him along slowly. He's a physical cornerback who could provide some great insurance or become a real alternative now if he's needed. ... Dan Orlovsky hasn't looked very good, but the team knows it will take him a while to be comfortable in the system and are convinced with coaching he can be a quality No. 2 quarterback for them. Even before a hamstring injury Rex Grossman wasn't going to challenge him for the backup quarterback job. ... Ryan Moats is like Slaton style-wise and Arian Foster is Chris Brown-like. But the undrafted rookie back may have missed his chance with a preseason injury and a too-slow return. Brown's ability to stay healthy will be a big question for the offense. ... While he's a popular fall guy with media and fans, defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who's missed camp so far recovering from hernia surgery, generally does what the team asks, taking up blockers. That it's a contract year won't hurt his motivation either. ... Undrafted free agent John Busing hits and plays good special teams, which may give him a shot at a roster spot that has belonged to Nick Ferguson or Brandon Harrison. ... The team also likes undrafted defensive end Tim Jamison, but will there be room for him? ... Frank Okam is big, quick and smart and he's been a pet project for coaches. When Kubiak complimented his offseason, Okam knew it meant something, "because it's difficult for an Aggie to give a Longhorn a compliment." ... Rookie tight end James Casey can play fullback, line up wide or throw. That's versatility that makes him Houston's Wildcat candidate. ... Want an undrafted possibility on offense? If Jones is out, there could be room for receiver Darnell Jenkins.

 
  Getty Images
  While the Texans made some expensive offseason additions to their defense, they did not add any high-profile competition for Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson, their presumed starters at safety.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Defensive upgrades were to be the theme of the offseason for the Houston Texans.

They grabbed defensive lineman Antonio Smith with a big-dollar free-agent contract. They drafted linebacker Brian Cushing with the No. 15 pick overall.

But outside of adding fourth- and sixth-round cornerbacks and a seventh-round safety/special-teamer in the draft, the Texans didn't add anyone of note to their secondary.

What does that say?

Either the Texans liked what they had enough to believe it will work better with an upgraded front seven, or they didn't like the options in free agency or the high value spots in the draft. Perhaps both.

"We have some quality guys back there, that if things are going correctly, they can contribute and make plays for us," said defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who took over as defensive coordinator for Richard Smith, whom Gary Kubiak let go. "Of course it's all tied together. Hopefully the front seven can do some things that are going to ease some of the pressures on the back end."

Bush said his veteran safeties are smart, contentious and understand the system and that the younger guys at the position are following suit.

Had there been a "gotta have him" first-round safety, he could have landed in Houston. There wasn't, so at organized team activities (OTAs) this week the Texans have lined up with Nick Ferguson at strong safety and Eugene Wilson at free safety on the first-team defense, with Brandon Harrison and Dominique Barber behind them.

The résumé lines for the four, with assessments from Bush:

  Ferguson

Ferguson has played nine seasons with the Jets, Denver and Houston. Last year he was considered a nice addition for depth and to assist in further establishing the culture coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith wanted to grow.

Bush: "Nick's a very tough kid. He hits a ton, he studies a tremendous amount. He's got real good zone coverage awareness. He might have a little bit of problem with some man-coverage things, but all in all, he's solid."

  Wilson

Wilson has 12 interceptions in five seasons playing both corner and safety. He was a second-rounder, 36th overall, for New England in 2003 and was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. He signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year and didn't stick before finding a home in Houston. He started the last nine games of 2008 at free safety.

Bush: "He's been playing safety, but he played corner in college. He's more athletic, more of a coverage safety, more in the middle of the field, a ball hawk. He's a willing tackler. He will come down in the box and lay some wood on you when he has to. But he's really comfortable ball-hawking, breaking on the ball and making plays on the ball."

  Harrison

Harrison was a fifth-round pick by the Texans out of Stanford in 2007 but missed his rookie year with an injury. He played in 15 games, starting six last season.

Bush: "Harrison is a Stanford kid, so of course he's smart. He's a big, physical presence. He's probably over 220 pounds, a kid that can strike you, runs well and moves real well for a big guy. His biggest deal is to keep getting quality reps and more experience. A big kid like that, you probably want him closer to the box. He's got almost linebacker size, but he's capable of playing in the middle of the field."

  Barber

Barber was presumed by many to be heading for the starting strong safety spot opposite Wilson this year, and still could be. At 6-foot, 218, he's thick and can thump if he's finding his way to the right spots.

Bush: "He actually played some nickel-type linebacker for us last year. He's another kid you like towards the box. But he has a tremendous understanding of the game -- his dad played, his brother played -- he really understands football. We're able to put him in the middle of the field and he can help guys get lined up and do things that way. He's got a lot of football savvy."

Troy Nolan, the seventh-rounder out of Arizona State has nice ball skills, but will have his initial opportunities on special teams.

If things pan out as the Texans envision, the club will get improved pla
y from the group of holdovers, boosted by a pass rush that will consistently force quarterbacks to make quicker decisions. If they don't, the spotlight will very likely chase the safeties and feel more like a searchlight.

It seems they have three candidates to be the in-the-box kind of guy. But they could have set things up better for competition at free safety, where I will be interested to see how Wilson can do.

"It's going to be on the DBs to cover so that the front seven can work and get those sacks," Barber said. "We know the front seven is going to get that push and it's going to come down to us making that play on the ball."

 
  Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMI
  New coordinator Frank Bush is looking for more discipline and accountability from his defense.

During this offseason work, the safeties have an additional chance to prove themselves as leaders. Cornerback Dunta Robinson will re-emerge eventually, either after signing the franchise tender that upset him or with a long-term contract. Without him around, Jacques Reeves -- a popular target of fans -- and Fred Bennett are the frontline corners.

Part of the appeal of fourth-round defensive back Glover Quin out of New Mexico was his versatility, but Bush said Quin is working with the corners for now along with sixth-rounder Brice McCain out of Utah.

The expectations Bush has for the safeties and defensive backfield are in line with the message for the whole defense, he said.

"More than anything, more discipline, being more consciously aware and accountable for their techniques and the things that we ask them to do," he said. "We're going to be sticklers for the details and by doing so make those kids more prepared to do the same things over and over and over again and get the same looks instead of , I won't say just ad-libbing it, but instead of having different techniques. We want the same things over and over and over again, so it becomes habit."

Barber said new defensive backs coach David Gibbs has streamlined a big piece of the safeties' lives.

"He's helped simplify a lot of the calls for the safeties and it makes all of the adjustments easier," Barber said. "And in three days of practice, you can tell we are flying around and have made a lot of progress already."

When Houston played its best defense last season, it was when coaches became less cautious and more aggressive. That was a big theme for Kubiak as he made the change from Smith to Bush, and players have universally talked about how they prefer the mindset.

Does a safety in that line of thinking have to be less afraid of giving up a big play?

"It's a controlled caution, I guess you would say," Bush said. "We will always try to give them the different techniques and the pointers to help them out in those situations. When we feel like we need to be aggressive, we're going to always give them some tools to protect themselves. Football is aggressive. If we can just play to those principles, we should be fine."

 
  US Presswire
  Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky

The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.

After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.

The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.

Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?

In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.

  2008: Best of Drew Brees
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  Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.

THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR

Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.

Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.

THE SCHEDULE

Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.

Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.


 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.

Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.

THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS

Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.

Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.

STAR POWER

 
  Matt Stamey/US Presswire
  The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.

Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton
is widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.

Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.

MOMENTUM

Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.

Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.

CONCLUSION

Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.

Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The theory says there are just six degrees of separation between each of us and anyone else on the planet, that in only six steps we can be connected through common acquaintances.

It's only natural in a league of 32 teams that had about 556 assistant coaches in 2008 that the degree of separation among them, if there is one at all, is usually one.

 
  Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire
  Gary Kubiak's defensive staff in Houston will have a new look heading into next season.

Let us consider that as we attempt to prejudge the promotions and additions Gary Kubiak has made to his staff in Houston. Frank Bush, promoted to defensive coordinator, and David Gibbs, hired as defensive backs coach, each have extensive experience with the Denver Broncos on their resumes.

In a recent, scathing column in the Houston Chronicle, Richard Justice made fun of the franchise for its propensity to lean on people Kubiak and GM Rick Smith know from their previous NFL lives in Denver.

Justice wrote that Smith might not have trusted two staff members who were let go after the Texans' season ended -- strength and conditioning coach Dan Riley and head trainer Kevin Bastin -- "because neither worked for the Denver Broncos, had enough friends with the Denver Broncos or changed planes in Denver."

The strength and conditioning coach job is still open. But Kubiak's staff is otherwise complete and now includes eight assistants with Denver ties and 11 without them. (Relevant aside: Of the four coaches Kubiak let go, defensive coordinator Richard Smith was connected to the Broncos while defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, defensive backs coach Jon Hoke and Riley were not.)

Now, of the team's four most powerful assistants by authority and title -- assistant head coach/offense Alex Gibbs and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Bush and new assistant head coach/defensive line coach Bill Kollar -- only Kollar has no Broncos connection.

That certainly leads some to say, "Hey, coach Kubiak, there's a whole, big football world out there that extends beyond Denver, especially considering that your mentor and the head man out there, Mike Shanahan -- also your offensive coordinator's dad -- was just fired."

Kubiak isn't concerned with perception outside team headquarters, but he was willing to outline how he looks at people he considers hiring or shifting upward.

"This is important and I've been doing it long enough to have coached with a lot of football coaches," he said. "And having some familiarity with how a guy coaches, how a guy teaches, him knowing what you expect and what you stand for, that's is important to me. I can't speak for everyone else out there. At the same time, when you're interviewing coaches that you haven't worked with or you don't know personally, I start pulling from guys I do know that may have worked with them, guys who know their work habits, know what type of person they are.

"In this business, coaches bounce around and we all kind of know each other one way or another."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Happy New Year's Eve.

We'll keep cranking here at the AFC South blog right into the start of January, but may have a pause Friday as we work our way to San Diego.

We start the headlines with one that hits two teams:

Clark Judge has Jim Schwartz and Jim Caldwell on his list of the league's best and brightest assistants who could soon be head coaches.

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

  • Bob Kravitz says Peyton Manning has never been more valuable.
  • Bob Sanders is ready to return and the Colts hope he sparks a run like he did in 2006, says Mike Chappell.
  • Injured middle linebacker Gary Brackett won't play in San Diego, writes Phil Richards.
  • Tony Dungy hopes the approach the Colts had to take during the season pays playoff dividends, writes Tom James.
  • Phillip B. Wilson with some notes and thoughts from Tuesday in his blog.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Jack Del Rio will push harder for players to be in town during the offseason and promised a tougher training camp. Michael C. Wright provides a solid run down of the coach's post mortem.
  • Gene Frenette liked what he heard from Del Rio.

Tennessee Titans

 
 AP Photo/Michael Conroy
 The Texans' defense has allowed opponents to score touchdowns in the red zone a league-worst 71.9 percent of the time.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Tuesday or Wednesday, workers will begin replacing the pieces of the Reliant Stadium roof damaged by Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13.

The heavy fabric panels will be laid down by helicopter and then laced in place.

Texans owner Bob McNair said the construction will be finished by the first part of January.

Right about when the work is finished, another repair project will commence, as the disappointing Houston Texans look to fix a team that has come up well short of expectations in 2008.

When the schedule came out in the spring and the Texans saw they were scheduled for their first "Monday Night Football" game in team history, they weren't expecting a battle of 4-7 teams.

"We thought quite possibly you'd have two teams contending for the lead in the AFC South," owner Bob McNair said. "We were certainly excited about that possibility. It was an exciting lineup at that point in time."

Now, instead of showing off a contender looking to make a bid for the playoffs, the Texans' matchup with the Jaguars is about the bottom of the AFC South.

The loser gets last place.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Good morning. Hope you can put these links to use while sipping your coffee. Or at lunch. Or during a break. The staff of the AFC South Blog cannot endorse you reading while working. But we are happy to look the other way and not say anything.

I'm sorry to report the AFC South chat is on a brief hiatus. I'm unable to chat Thursday and will be bringing you details from Titans-Lions on Thanksgiving. We will resume in December.

In the meantime, feel free to hit the mailbag. As always, I welcome comments, suggestions, links, criticism and anything else you can throw at me in the mailbag.

Houston Texans

  • The Texans will look for a fresh run game to be a key against Cleveland, writes Megan Manfull.
  • John McClain hears the fans calling for Richard Smith's job.
  • McClain's chat transcript is heavy on what chances people think the Texans should make.

Indianapolis Colts

  • Reggie Wayne walks on water in a new commercial, says Phil Richards.
  • Tom Santi to IR, Jamie Petrowski to the 53-man roster, reports Mike Chappell.
  • One last review of Colts-Texans, from Phillip B. Wilson.
  • John Oehser's weekly chat with Tony Dungy at Colts.com.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • What's gone wrong? Cole Pepper ponders with percentages.
  • Jack Del Rio may be losing his grip, says Vic Carucci of NFL.com.
  • Mike Tice is content as part of Jack Del Rio's staff, but would like another chance as the top guy, writes Mark Craig.
  • A Q&A with Josh Scobee.

Tennessee Titans

  • The Titans are doing well in fan Pro Bowl voting, says Jim Wyatt.
  • With a win and three other results, the Titans could clinch their playoff spot this week, writes Terry McCormick.
  • A look at how the playoffs would stack up right now from SI.com's Dom Bonvissuto.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

It's Saturday. We've all got a lot to do. Tempting not to read any football.

OK, I'm kidding.

I did. Now you have to. I've eliminated the surfing. All you have to do is put down the coffee and click.

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

  • The Colts have gotten better play out of their defensive tackles, writes Phil Richards.
  • A look at injuries heading into Sunday's game against the Texans.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • While Mike Peterson's lost the starting middle-linebacking job, Jack Del Rio is moving him to the weak side and told Michael C. Wright that Peterson will get some of Justin Durant's work.

Tennessee Titans

  • Chris Johnson reflects on last week, his worst game of the season so far. It's the top of Jim Wyatt's insider.
  • Free safety Michael Griffin still excels on special teams, says Gary Estwick.
  • Joe Biddle says the undefeated Titans get everyone's best shot.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Back from Chicago, sorry for the late start.

Just read everything I could on the AFC South and now invite you to do the same.

Houston Texans

The Texans were pathetic in losing to the Ravens, writes John McClain. Gary Kubiak tried to take the blame, but you've got to like what Chester Pitts said: "I'm tired of coaches shouldering the blame for players."

Richard Justice said he saw an alarming lack of heart and resilience and wonders about the job security of defensive coordinator Richard Smith.

Sage Rosenfels' month as a fill-in for Matt Schaub started miserably, says Dale Robertson.

Houston's defense didn't hold up against the Ravens and Gary Kubiak expected more, says Megan Manfull.

John McClain blogs that he was an idiot to pick the Texans over the Ravens and that the Texans are a joke.

Andre Johnson is cooling off.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts converted turnovers into points to beat the Steelers, writes Phil Richards.

Thanks to a gritty performance, Indianapolis is back in line for a title run, opines Bob Kravitz. Also, Marvin Harrison looks to be going through the motions.

Kravitz' report card includes an A+ for run defense.

Perseverance paid off, says Mike Chappell.

Reggie Wayne's big day included two catches of tipped balls, writes Chappell.

Ben Roethlisberger takes the blame for the Pittsburgh loss, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Indy leaned on defense to win in Pittsburgh, says Jarrett Bell.

The Colts played like a desperate team, says Vic Carucci of NFL.com.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Reggie Hayward said the win in Detroit was the Jaguars' first complete game of the year, writes Vito Stellino.

Gene Frenette's report card includes an A for coaching.

For at least one Sunday, the Jaguars rushing offense gets on track, says Michael C. Wright.

In all, 10 Jaguars were fined as a result of the John Henderson-Andrew Wentworth fight in last week's Jacksonville-Cincinnati game.

The Lions helped cure the Jaguars' sack woes, too, as they got seven, according to Wright.

Fred Taylor passes 11,000 yards with one of his idols, Barry Sanders, watching, says Mark Snyder.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are sitting on cloud 9-0, writes Jim Wyatt.

David Climer considers the undefeated Titans with help from Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher, who said: "They don't look like a dominant team. But they keep winning games. You've got to respect them for that."

Don Banks wonders how you stop the Titans now that they have proved they don't have to run to win.

Alex Marvez offers his take on the Titans' ability to adapt.

Brandon Jones looked pretty good for a team that takes a lot of heat about its receivers, says Gary Estwick.

Fullback Ahmard Hall lamented a goal line fumble in The Tennessean's notebook.

The Titans defense settled down after an early drive by the Bears, according to Estwick.

Climer's four downs.

Wyatt's report card. How often do you see an F in a win? The rushing offense certainly deserved it.

Pittsburgh's loss helps the Titans as they look to secure homefield in the playoffs, says Terry McCormick.

The Bears didn't measure up to Tennessee, says Mike Downey.

After bagging a six-pointer hunting on Friday, Kerry Collins threw two six-pointers against the Bears, says Mike Dodd.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

What's going on in the AFC South? Here's a late-morning rundown.

Houston Texans

  • Gary Kubiak's record through 34 games is exactly the same as Jeff Fisher's. Good stuff from John McClain spelling out why calling for Kubiak's firing is silly.
  • Defensive coordinator Richard Smith is trying to be creative with Mario Williams, writes Dale Robertson.
  • Bryan Pittman's poor long-snapping was one reason Kubiak was a bit reluctant to kick field goals last week, according to Megan Manfull. If it's so bad as to impact what an offense can and can't do, doesn't a change have to be made?
  • Sloppiness had Kubiak concerned, writes Michael C. Wright.
  • The Texans have good history against Jacksonville, says Brooke Bentley of houstontexans.com.

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was at least part serious when he guaranteed bigger plays from the passing game, writes Vito Stellino.
  • Matt Jones is different, says Tania Ganguli.
  • Reggie Nelson has a bruised knee. It's a relief it's nothing worse, but still has him day-to-day, according to Kyle G. Nelson.

Tennessee Titans

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