NFL Nation: Tom Zbikowski

Jay Cutler AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler is expected to play a series or two against the Panthers on Friday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here are five things to keep an eye on Friday night when the Chicago Bears face the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

1. OL blocking: It's likely the Bears go into this game with a starting five up front that you won't see once the club opens the regular season Sept. 8 against Cincinnati, mainly because of the calf strain suffered by starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who isn't expected to play. The plan is to play the starters just a few snaps. So in that limited amount of time it's important to see how well the group protects and opens the lanes in the ground game given all the changes made schematically. Count on a starting five of Roberto Garza, James Brown, Eben Britton, J'Marcus Webb and Matt Slauson. Rookie Kyle Long should see plenty of snaps, too, and is also a player to keep close tabs on. The only way skill-position players such as quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte excel is for the offensive line to sufficiently do its job. If in limited duty, the starting offensive line performs similarly to the way the group played in 2012, it will be clear the group still needs extensive work.

2. Cutler's command of the offense: Cutler is in the midst of learning his fourth offense in five seasons with the Bears, and it would be unrealistic to expect him to operate flawlessly against the Panthers. But he does need to show some degree of command of the new system. So far during training camp practices, for whatever reason, the timing between Cutler and the receiving corps appears to be off. Some of that is a function of Chicago's defensive line bearing down hard on Cutler every play during training camp, and tipping many of his passes at the line of scrimmage. But in this game, the offensive line will have every tactic at its disposal to combat Carolina's pass rush. That should open up some passing lanes for Cutler to be able to find some type of rhythm. It's also worth it to watch how quickly the Bears get in and out of the huddle. The club unnecessarily burned timeouts too often last season, and Marc Trestman's system contains much more verbiage than some of the schemes Cutler has operated in the past.

(Read full post)

When the Colts activated linebacker Josh McNary from their reserve/military list to the 90-man active roster, they waived linebacker C.O. Prime to make room.

But later Tuesday they rescinded the waiver request on Prime, keeping him on their 90-man roster and instead put defensive tackle Brandon McKinney on injured-reserve.

It’s not yet clear if this is a result of the same knee injury suffered in camp last year, when he suffered a torn ACL.

McKinney has not practiced since the team started camp on Sunday.

McKinney got a two-year, $2 million contract from the Colts in 2012. He was one of two defensive veterans the Colts brought over from the defense Chuck Pagano coordinated in Baltimore before he was hired to replace Jim Caldwell. Safety Tom Zbikowski was released after the team signed LaRon Landry in free agency. Now McKinney is also gone, and it appears unlikely he will ever play a game for Indianapolis.

The team is reasonably deep in the interior line now, and will miss him less than it did last season, when he could have been the primary nose tackle. Now Josh Chapman looks to be the leaders for the most time, and veteran Aubrayo Franklin can be a run-stuffer. Martin Tevaseu is also listed as a nose tackle.

Ricky Jean Francois and rookie Montori Hughes will also be equipped to play inside in certain situations.

Reassessing the Colts' needs

April, 3, 2013
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The Colts have restocked their roster in a big way since free agency opened, adding 10 veterans from the outside.

Some are sure to be upgrades, like right tackle Gosder Cherilus and safety LaRon Landry. Others require a wait-and-see approach as we find out how strongside linebacker Erik Walden and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois fare with expanded roles.

Despite an 11-win season, Indianapolis headed toward the second season of Ryan Grigson as the general manager, Chuck Pagano as the head coach and Andrew Luck as the quarterback with some significant holes.

With all the additions, the pressure to find answers at certain spots in the draft is significantly lightened. That makes for a far better atmosphere in which to draft.

Here’s my assessment of what they’ve done to fill roster gaps and what now rank as the team’s primary needs with the draft drawing near.

[+] EnlargeGosder Cherilus
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsGosder Cherilus, left, provides an infusion of talent to a Colts O-line that was lacking it last season.
Offensive line -- Cherilus is a physical player who can help change and set a better tone for a position that simply didn’t have enough talent last season. Donald Thomas will upgrade a guard slot as well. Is it enough? I think they should add at least one more lineman in the draft who can contend for a guard spot or at center.

Cornerback -- Greg Toler could be a fine second starter, but they qualify as three deep at best with Vontae Davis, Toler and Darius Butler. They have to have another solid guy in the mix, and the draft should provide someone who will automatically qualify as better than Cassius Vaughn.

Wide receiver -- Can they get more out of Darrius Heyward-Bey than they got out of Donnie Avery? I would think so. Is DHB going to be the ultimate successor to Reggie Wayne? I highly doubt it. They need to be looking for that guy to go with T.Y. Hilton, their lone long-term sure thing at the position.

Safety -- LaRon Landry is a significant upgrade over Tom Zbikowski. He and Antoine Bethea should be a nice tandem. Joe Lefeged is fine as depth. But in a good safety year and with Bethea heading into his eighth season, I think it would be a good move to add a young player at the spot.

Outside linebacker -- Walden was a controversial addition, but they’ve emphasized his ability to set the edge. That does not make for much of a pass rush opposite Robert Mathis. I hope they aren’t counting on big production from Jerry Hughes or Lawrence Sidbury. They still need a pass-rushing outside 'backer.

Defensive end -- They resigned Fili Moala and hope Cory Redding will be more durable. Newcomer Ricky Jean Francois could start outside and move inside in nickel. Another guy in that mix wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Running back -- Vick Ballard, Donald Brown and Delone Carter are the three-pack that will return. Ballard showed a lot of promise, but the other two are not sure things. Bruce Arians’ offense didn’t throw to backs much. Pep Hamilton’s offense will do so more. If Grigson sees a versatile back as a value, I expect he’ll add one.

Defensive tackle -- Went from being a need to not being a need. Jean Francois will play some tackle and some end. Aubrayo Franklin can be an early-down run-stopper. And they expect Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman to be healthy and equipped to contribute. They could have a lot of options at this spot who fit the 3-4 front.

Quarterback -- They did well replacing Drew Stanton with Matt Hasselbeck as Luck’s backup. The No. 2 was never going to come from the draft.
Some Colts fans have been in touch, confused about the awarding of compensatory draft picks. The Colts were awarded one pick, the final pick of the draft (No. 254).

But in the league's formula that figures out who gets what in terms of the extra draft selections, Indianapolis didn't actually "earn" a pick. Compensatory picks add the equivalent of one round worth of selections to the draft. When there aren't enough awarded by the formula, the league adds picks for the near misses until it gets to 32.

One thing many people forget is that many of the biggest losses for the Colts were released. Only players who reach free agency with expiring contracts count here. So Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett and Curtis Painter were all let go and didn't factor in at all.

According to the NFL, these are the players who did factor into the equation for compensatory draft picks for Indianapolis.

Players lost: Jamaal Anderson (Cincinnati), Pierre Garcon (Washington), Dan Orlovsky (Tampa Bay), Jeff Saturday (Green Bay), Jacob Tamme (Denver), Philip Wheeler (Oakland).

Players signed: Guard Mike McGlynn, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney, defensive end Cory Redding, center Samson Satele, quarterback Drew Stanton and safety Tom Zbikowski.

Stanton counted despite the fact that the Colts traded for him, because he was signed by the Jets as a free agent in 2012 before that deal. A player with such circumstances is part of the formula.

Garcon was the lone giant contract on either side of that ledger, and apparently the Colts did enough to offset that signing with what they brought in.

Here's the league's language explaining the process.
Under the rules for compensatory draft selections, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks.

The number of picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four. The 32 compensatory choices announced today will supplement the 222 choices in the seven rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (April 25-27), which will kick off in prime time for the fourth consecutive year.

The first round will be held on Thursday, April 25 and begin at 8 p.m. ET. The second and third rounds are set for Friday, April 26 at 6:30 p.m. ET followed by rounds 4-7 on Saturday, April 27 at Noon ET.

This year, the compensatory picks will be positioned within the third through seventh rounds based on the value of the compensatory free agents lost.

Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula.

Two clubs this year (Indianapolis and the New York Giants) will each receive a compensatory pick even though they did not suffer a net loss of compensatory free agents last year. Under the formula, the compensatory free agents lost by these clubs were ranked higher than the ones they signed (by a specified point differential based upon salary and performance).
When the Colts traded a second-round pick to Miami for cornerback Vontae Davis, part of their reasoning was Chuck Pagano’s experience coaching defensive backs would bring out the best in Davis.

I factor that same thinking into their signing of Jets free-agent safety LaRon Landry. Adam Schefter confirmed a CBS Sports report that it's a four-year, $24 million deal.

He’s a good player but he played only about half a season in 2010 and 2011 in Washington because of problems with his left Achilles tendon.

But he played every game in his one season with the Jets, notching two interceptions, eight passes defensed and four forced fumbles.

Landry will start opposite Antoine Bethea, taking the place of Tom Zbikowski. Zbikowski was signed last year as a free agent. He had played under Pagano in Baltimore, but is a limited player who is better cast as a third safety and special-teamer.

Scouts Inc. gives Landry its highest rating in run support, and he should be a boon for a run defense that ranked 29th in the league last season and gave up an average of 5.1 yards a carry.

While the contract given to linebacker Erik Walden qualifies as controversial, the Colts see him as a guy who can set the edge on one side of the field against the run. With Landry being a big component in the run defense as well, they have to feel better about their ability to slow down running backs.

Says Scouts Inc: "Landry had arguably the best season of his career in 2012, his first year in New York. He is a tough, hard-nosed run-stopper who is best filling an alley in the running game. He shows good range defending both the run and pass but doesn't have great pure speed in coverage. Landry was able to bounce back from injuries the previous two seasons to bring experience and attitude to the Jets."

I’d rank him the biggest addition of the Colts' six signings in free agency.

Here's Ryan Grigson from the news release announcing the addition of Landry: "We're ecstatic about this signing. We feel LaRon is an absolute game-changer and a true impact player. We're talking about a 220-pound safety that runs 4.3 and plays to that speed. His approach to the game and his style of play are lights out and embody the culture we're building on the defense and this team in general."

Pagano, Arians know Ravens well

December, 31, 2012
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Too much is made of a former coach or player going against his old team.

But the Colts do get a slight edge as they prepare for a wild-card round playoff game at Baltimore.

Coach Chuck Pagano, safety Tom Zbikowski and defensive lineman Cory Redding were all with the Ravens in 2011. Pagano was defensive coordinator.

Pagano
Arians
Arians
He smiles when Indianapolis reporters asked him if he’ll spend a bit of extra time with the offense this week.

“There’s a good chance it may happen,” he said.

Asked for more he continued:

“If I tell you, I might as well call John [Harbaugh] and tell him exactly what I’m telling our guys and then they may go and change everything. No disrespect. Like I said initially, there’s going to be some things. I can sit down and watch some tape with anybody on the offensive side of the ball, with the coaches, and if there’s some questions that need to be answered based on coverages, and fronts, and techniques, and personnel and things like that, then obviously having spent the past four years there, I would be crazy not to spend some time with them.”

Pagano is hardly the only resource among the coaches. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians spent the past eight years with the Steelers, preparing for the Ravens twice annually as AFC North rivals.

“Bruce knows that defense, he knows that scheme,” Pagano said. "He knows that personnel, other than the new guys that are there. I think going into this ballgame, I think it’ll really help us getting started and being able to put together a plan that will give us a chance to go win that football game.”

Meanwhile in Baltimore, Harbaugh laughed at the notion he could glean any insight about Colts quarterback Andrew Luck from his brother Jim, the 49ers coach who worked with Luck at Stanford.

“What are you going to get?” John Harbaugh asked. You can see it on tape. He’s a tremendous quarterback. He’s got pluses, and he has things that aren’t so plus. So, it’s like any quarterback. We’ll be looking forward to playing against him.”

Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was head coach of the Colts from 2009-11. While he will know some of the leftover personnel, the defense he's scheming against is more like the one in Baltimore than the one he coached in Indianapolis.

Key injuries in the AFC South

December, 14, 2012
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A look at the key injuries and what they mean in the AFC South…

Colts

Safety Tom Zbikowski, right tackle Winston Justice, inside linebacker Kavell Conner, center Samson Satele and running back Delone Carter are out.

Of the new missing guys, replacements will be right tackle Jeff Linkenbach, inside linebacker Pat Angerer, center A.Q. Shipley and running back Mewelde Moore.

Jaguars

Running backs Rashad Jennings, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jordan Todman, cornerback Aaron Ross and defensive end George Selvie are out. Montell Owens will start at running back again.

Austin Pasztor is expected to start at let guard, where Mike Brewster is done for the season and Eben Britton is seemingly out of chances. Receiver Cecil Shorts is expected to play.

Texans

Outside linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Alan Ball are out. Whitney Mercilus will continue to work as the outside linebacker replacing Reed.

Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton, safety Glover Quin (hip) and right tackle Derek Newton are questionable. Quintin Demps would replace Quin.

Titans

Designations come tomorrow since they play Monday night. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is not expected to play and Tim Shaw would start for him again. Receiver Damian Williams and end Scott Solomon also missed Friday practice.
Colts strong safety Tom Zbikowski is not a real strength in pass coverage for the team.

Zbikowski
Now he’s out of Sunday’s game in Detroit because of a knee injury. Bruce Arians said both Joe Lefeged and Sergio Brown will see time in place of Zbikowski.

Brown's most notable moment this season came as he put his hands to his helmet in a what-did-I-just-do reaction after he got beat by Cecil Shorts on an 80-yard catch and run on Sept. 23 that won a 22-17 game for Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Pro Football Focus rates Zbikowski 58th among safeties who’ve seen enough work to qualify, with a 1.7 rating in pass coverage and a minus-4.1 in run defense.

By their count, Zbikowski has played 693 snaps (with 393 in pass coverage), Brown 25 and Lefeged 11

The Colts rank 19th in the NFL in pass defense, which is based on yardage. Detroit fields the league’s top passing offense.

It’s a bad matchup with Indianapolis even at full strength.
Andrew LuckDavid Dermer/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck and the Colts, who are 3-3, are one win away from doubling last season's win total.
The gushing can be a little much at times, which is surely a part of why Andrew Luck avoids it.

He’s not particularly interested in what’s said about him. This progress report on Luck will not be seen by him, which will save him a couple minutes -- and do nothing for getting this blog known by the division’s headline player.

Nevertheless, we forge ahead.

Six games into his rookie season, Luck’s done fine work as the quarterback of the rebuilding Colts. He’s got just the poise and presence we talked about leading into and out of the draft and training camp. He’s got command of the offense and command of the huddle. He quickly understands his mistakes and gets ticked at himself if he repeats them.

“I’m very impressed,” ESPN.com's Matt Williamson. “He’s poised. He gets it. All the physical stuff is there. The supporting cast is bad -- he makes it look better than it is -- and he has made his share of rookie mistakes. But I have no doubt that he is all he was cracked up to be.”

While Washington’s Robert Griffin III has been more dynamic and drawn more attention, the case can be made that Luck has played just as well or better. As Chase Stuart points out in this New York Times blog entry, Luck is generally throwing further downfield than Griffin and hardly checks the ball down, which explains a lot about the difference in their respective numbers.

And it’s Luck’s team, not RG3’s, that currently qualifies as a viable playoff contender. It’s not his fault the AFC has so many average teams. Sunday he leads the Colts into Nashville for a matchup that’s far more important than any of us imagined it could be.

The winner will have four wins. If it’s the Colts, they’ll be 4-3, already doubling last season’s win total in the first year of a rebuild that includes new management, a new coaching staff, new schemes, and a new quarterback who was the draft’s top pick.

That’s some accelerated rebounding for a team whose coach, Chuck Pagano, is battling leukemia, and who has an offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, filling in by wearing the big headset. While a lot of people have contributed to the success so far, nothing is more important to the health, direction and vibe of a franchise than its quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians and Andrew Luck
Joe Robbins/Getty Images"He's light-years ahead of where we thought he would be," Bruce Arians said of Andrew Luck.
“I think Bruce has done a great job of giving Andrew things he is familiar with and can operate well,” said Bill Polian, who ran the Colts through last year and is now an ESPN analyst. “Andrew has done a terrific job of preparation and study on both opponents and his own people. In addition, like RG3, he has that special ‘something’ that all great ones have. I said in the spring that I believed both were ‘can't miss’ and I still feel that way.”

“You would never think [Luck] is a rookie,” Titans coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Munchak said. “I think he looks very comfortable. He looks like Peyton [Manning] on the play-action stuff. He’s very comfortable in the pocket. He moves around it very nicely. His eyes stay down the field. He’s not looking to run, he’s not looking to throw the quick pass.

“He’s going to give his receivers time to get open. I think he’s done a good job with that. He’s getting rid of the ball. He’s not taking the sack, but he’s taking hits because he’ll hold onto it to make a bigger play. You don’t see many rookies that will do that.”

Luck cites two things when asked about the biggest adjustment from Stanford to the Colts: The speed of the linebackers is so much better, and there are a lot more protections that are far more complicated because of the vast variety of blitzes he faces.

Where he can improve the most is with more accurate deep balls. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he’s at 51.5 percent on balls thrown from 11 to 20 yards, 39.4 percent on throws more than 21 yards and 12.5 percent (just one of eight) on balls thrown more than 31 yards. Deep-threat receiver Donnie Avery's been targeted 54 times, tied for 17th in the NFL, and should have more than 25 catches and a bigger average than his 12.2.

His response to mistakes is super-healthy, and a big part of why his growth curve is so steep.

“I think I realized, you throw an interception, bad deal, but if you have another chance to go out there, you better get rid of that thought on the interception and worry about the next play, or else you’ll be doing your team a bigger disservice,” he said. “That’s sort of the approach I’ve tried to take. It’s worked out all right.”

The Colts’ patchwork offensive line isn’t great at protecting him, but some of his 16 sacks are not on the guys in front of him.

“A couple of hits and sacks [against Cleveland] were 100 percent on me, and that is something I hope to get better at, and not repeat the same mistakes twice,” he said. “The line has done a great job all year of blocking their butts off. They know that I appreciate what they’re doing. A couple of those are on me.”

Arians has no issue putting Luck and the offense into no-huddle situations, and the quarterback has excelled with it. It’s something that Arians, who was also offensive coordinator for the Colts when Manning started his pro career, didn’t install until Manning’s second year.

At times, Arians has to be conscious of slowing things down for the five other rookies on that side of the ball getting regular playing time.

“I think nothing surprises me with [Luck] anymore,” Arians said. “He’s light years ahead of where we thought he would be. There’s nothing really left to put in the playbook that we haven’t installed, and he’s been extremely good in clutch situations."

Indianapolis is a team with holes for sure.

The run effort in the win over the Browns was better and set a new standard, but there is no reason yet to expect a consistent run game. While safety Tom Zbikowski is coming off his best game, he’s not been very consistent. The team is recovering from a slew of injuries along the defensive line and to both of its premier ends-turned-outside linebackers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

But this whole rebuild that started with general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano is keyed around Luck. Grigson will continue to try to surround his star quarterback with talent that can help him excel. Pagano and Arians will continue to shape schemes that are most favorable to him. The fan base should be thrilled that there is tangible progress in the present, and have great optimism about the future.

Already, teams like the Titans know that to beat a team that dissolved into a 2-14 mess a year ago, they’ll have to limit Luck.

“He is unfazed by rushers, I think he’s a tough quarterback, he’s taken hits,” Titans defensive end Kamerion Wimbley said. “He’s not going to get panicked or anything like that. He’s making big-time throws. I think he’s faster than a lot of people think, you definitely have to be aware as a rusher of staying in your lanes and making sure you can contain him.”

Finally, how does Luck judge his own progress?

“What I’ve learned in this short time is that it’s hard to get a win,” he said. “Everybody is good. I think as an offense, we’re getting better, improving. We have to get better if we want to start getting wins, and being a winning football team.

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this season. I didn’t put up benchmarks of I want to have thrown this many yards by this date, or have limited interceptions to this number by this date. I do think we’re improving, and I’m improving.”

Final Word: AFC South

September, 7, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Debuting as linebackers: Longtime Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis debut as outside linebackers in Chicago in new coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4. In nickel situations they’ll probably look a lot like they always have. But on early downs they’ll be moving around and far less predictable than they’ve been in the past. They have the most favorable matchups of anyone on defense for the Colts in this game -- Bears tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi are unproven pieces of a line that needs to offer better protection for quarterback Jay Cutler. (Here is Kevin Seifert on the matchups.) Pagano is going to find ways to attack those guys. The Bears should counter by getting the Colts into nickel and looking to attack nickelback Justin King and strong safety Tom Zbikowski until they prove they can slow the pass.

[+] EnlargeDerek Newton
AP Photo/Frederick BreedonRight tackle Derek Newton is part of a revamped right side of Houston's offensive line.
New right side: The Texans spent the preseason sorting out the right side of the offensive line after guard Mike Brisiel left for Oakland as a free agent and Eric Winston was released in a cost-cutting move. Enter guard Antoine Caldwell and the surprise winner of the right tackle job, Derek Newton. Per ESPN Stats and Info, the Texans averaged 5.1 yards per rush to the right side last season -- the NFL’s sixth-best average to that area. Caldwell played 210 plays at right guard last season, and Newton logged 11 plays at right tackle.

Crafty vs. crafty: Titans nickel cornerback Alterraun Verner is looking forward to going against Wes Welker. There are some things in which Tom Brady and Welker are virtually unstoppable. But Verner has a knack for staying on top of short, underneath stuff out of the slot and is good at trusting the coverage help a defensive call will provide. He said that although Welker is typically cast as crafty, he’s crafty too. Verner said that after this matchup, everything else will seem easier. How he holds up against the league’s most productive inside receiver will be a big piece of the Titans' defensive story Sunday.

Revealing an offense: Mike Mularkey said early in training camp that the Jaguars' offense won’t just be what we saw him call with Atlanta as offensive coordinator. Rather, he and his staff -- with guys like coordinator Bob Bratkowski, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and running backs coach Sylvester Croom -- sat down and pieced together an offense that combines elements from all of their backgrounds. The first-team offense performed well in the preseason, so we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about its being vanilla. But I expect we’ll see some surprises on offense against the Vikings as we see what, exactly, Mularkey and his staff have constructed.

Questions to be answered: What’s the rotation at outside linebacker look like for Houston, and how much does first-rounder Whitney Mercilus get on the field to offer Connor Barwin a rest? ... Will receiver Austin Collie, not far removed from a concussion, play for the Colts? ... Does rookie linebacker Zach Brown get on the field for the Titans in packages with an emphasis on slowing the Patriots’ tight ends? ... With C.J. Mosley starting beside Tyson Alualu at defensive tackle for the Jaguars, how much will Terrance Knighton get on the field?

AFC South: More or Less

June, 19, 2012
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AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

HOUSTON TEXANS: If injuries have a way of evening out, then the Houston Texans should have a relatively healthy season, though they certainly don’t want anyone saying that out loud. Last year they lost Mario Williams after five games, Matt Schaub after 10 and Andre Johnson for nine. And those were just the headliners.

The Texans were 4-2 in the AFC South last year. I don’t buy that they should run through the Titans, Jaguars and Colts this season, but I do expect them to fare at least that well. This year’s AFC East will be a bit easier than last year’s AFC North was. But Houston was 2-2 against the NFC South, and I think the 2012 Packers, Lions and Bears will prove tougher opponents than the 2011 Saints and Panthers were. And the Texans draw the Ravens and Broncos as a result of finishing atop the AFC South last year.

A healthier Houston should be a better team and could rate with the very best in the AFC. But a schedule I view as more difficult prevents me from thinking the Texans will fare more than a game better and they could very well be the same.

More or less? I’m going to give Clayton a bull’s-eye on this one and say he’s right on it.

TENNESSEE TITANS: Last year’s 9-7 record was padded by a Week 17 win in Houston that meant nothing to the Texans. Can the Titans in Mike Munchak’s second year turn around and match or surpass it? I’m skeptical.

While the Titans' offense looks like it can be filled with playmakers, it’s also filled with question marks. Can Kenny Britt bounce back from a reconstructed ACL? Can Chris Johnson bounce back from an uninspired season? Can the team consistently steer the ball to Jared Cook and can he make plays regularly instead of in spurts? Can Kendall Wright catch on quickly and become an immediate impact guy? Can Nate Washington be the guy he was in a great 2011? At this point it’s difficult for me to answer yes to enough of those to give the Titans a high-flying offense, especially without knowing who the quarterback is and how he performed to win the job.

And that’s the good side of the ball. The defense is loaded with guys in roles where they’ve not yet proven they can excel over 16 weeks -- from lead cornerback Jason McCourty as the top dog to Tommie Campbell or another unknown as the third corner, from Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan as the lead pass-rusher in Jerry Gray’s system to Akeem Ayers as a strongside linebacker who’s supposed to contribute to pass pressure.

More or less? Clayton’s a touch high. My general sense and my run through of the schedule are having trouble getting me past 7-9 right now.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: While the Texans’ injuries got the headlines in the AFC South because of the way Houston survived them, the Jaguars also had a defense that may have been in line to be very good. Theirs got ripped apart by injuries, particularly at cornerback, and they simply didn’t have the sort of depth they needed to hold up. A one-dimensional offense simply couldn’t do enough to help out, and five wins was all the team could muster as Jack Del Rio was fired before it was over.

Beyond staying healthy, this team needs three things to happen to get past the prevailing outside opinion. The Jaguars need Blaine Gabbert to be far closer to an average NFL quarterback than the 34th best one in the league as he was a season ago. They need the receivers starting with Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon to consistently dictate defenses pay attention to them outside. And they need some combination of guys on the edge, including second-round draft pick Andre Branch, to mount a much better pass rush.

I think it’s possible they get those things, and I think Mike Mularkey and a fresh-start coaching staff can put people like Gabbert, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Robinson and Blackmon in position to make a lot more plays, while a linebacking corps of Daryl Smith, Paul Posluszny and Clint Session anchor a much-improved defense.

More or less? Call me crazy, and I know a lot of you might join Clayton in doing so, but I think the Jaguars will be at least a touch better than Clayton thinks and could even land in second place.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: In their first eight games, the new-look Colts face Minnesota, Jacksonville, the Jets, Browns, Dolphins and Titans. While all of those teams will expect to beat a rebuilding team, none of them is a lock to do so. If the Colts can play well over the first half of the season, they could well be in position to make a significant step forward from last year’s total of two wins.

Andrew Luck will have some good days and the Colts will have some leads. Their tight ends, while young, and at least their top receivers will be solid threats for him. He’ll be good enough quickly enough that if the patchwork offensive line and run game can’t protect him, he will get rid of the ball and avoid a lot of potential blows.

The trouble is, even if the Colts get to play from ahead, which will allow them to be exotic in the ways they rush Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and anyone else, the secondary looks to be an issue. I’m not certain Tom Zbikowski will solve the problem opposite Antoine Bethea at free safety and beyond Jerraud Powers no one outside the organization would covet their corners. If I have to throw to get back in a game against the Colts, that might be just fine -- I might want them to be in nickel and dime to take on those matchups anyway.

More or less? More, but probably only one more.

Colts liking Chuck Pagano's vibe

June, 13, 2012
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PaganoAP Photo/David DrapkinCoach Chuck Pagano says the new Colts staff is "just trying to build something special here."
INDIANAPOLIS -- During the Peyton Manning era, the Indianapolis Colts were built around precision.

At this stage of the season, the precision was perceived in how everyone was at the right spot -- not just in running routes, but in moving from drill to drill and practice period to practice period.

Things looked the same to me Tuesday as the new-look Colts' work on “building the monster” picked up some steam as Andrew Luck arrived and the entire team was together for the first time.

From my limited view, new coach Chuck Pagano is setting a nice tone.

Veteran safety Antoine Bethea characterized things as looser -- which I take as a telling word. Manning and Bill Polian weren’t especially big on looseness. It was a disciplined, serious atmosphere, and that was typically effective for the franchise. Last year as things crumbled with Manning sidelined, the tension level was too high and it was a factor in Jim Irsay's decision to part ways with Polian.

Things are working somewhat differently now.

“It’s very lively around here, eveybody’s joking,” Bethea said. “We’ve got a job to get done, and (Pagano's) making sure we know that. But at the same time we can have fun with it. ...We’re just having a real good time learning the concepts.

“It’s a little different. It was way more business like -- not saying it’s not business like now. But it was, ‘We’re out here, we’re going to get the job done, no goofing around.’ Here we’re kind of freed up a little bit, just having a little more fun.”

Typically when a new coach brings in some guys he’s worked with before, they are expected to spread the culture the staff aims to grow.

Safety Tom Zbikowski is one of three veterans who came from Baltimore, and played under Pagano, who was a position coach and coordinator with the Ravens. Zbikowski said serving as an agent of culture change has not really been part of his role with the Colts so far.

“ I wish I could say I’m doing more, but this team is made up of real professionals,” he said. “...Chuck’s doing a good job making known what he wants accomplished and all three coordinators are doing a good job of setting the pace.

“We’re just all following Chuck’s lead.”

It’s an interesting balance to strike when you move from position coach to coordinator to head coach. Some coaches trickle their messages through their staff and deal very little with players. Others are much more interactive.

“He’s a real personable coach,” said veteran right tackle Winston Justice, who came to the Colts in a trade from Philadelphia. “He reminds me of Pete Carroll from when I was in college, he’ll talk to you and stuff. I’m not comparing him to Pete Carroll in any sense beyond that.

“But he talks to you. Andy Reid, he doesn’t talk to you. I’ve probably talked to Pagano more in these first couple weeks than I talked to Reid in seven years. That makes you want to play for him harder, basically.”

Pagano seems like a straight shooter who’s created a good and healthy atmosphere. His roster is thin at several spots and while no one wants to use the word rebuild, the Colts are absolutely rebuilding.

How quickly new schemes and new personnel jell and produce will be the big question, and when we start to get some answers we’ll have a much better read on the rookie coach.

“We are just trying to build something special here,” Pagano said. “They have won here and they have had a great run. What we are going to try to do is build something really special, and something that will stand the test of time. Something that we can look back on and say, ‘We did this for a long period of time, and it wasn’t just a quick fix type of thing.’”
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Colts in 2012.

Dream scenario (8-8): I consider this a pretty optimistic dream, but since we’re dreaming …

This one would require exemplary rookie seasons from quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and at least a few others from the new regime’s first class.

But beyond that, they’ll need several guys from the old regime to play far better in a new system than they did in the old one for which they were better suited.

Donald Brown or Delone Carter will have to run effectively, for example. From a pool of returning cornerbacks including Chris Rucker, Kevin Thomas, Terrence Johnson and Brandon King, they need to find at least a nickel, and that presumes the guy they just traded for, Cassius Vaughn, will be the second starter. (If I am playing against the Colts, with that collection of defensive backs, I’m trying to get them in dime.)

Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis prove to be pass-rushing demons as outside linebackers in a 3-4 base set, where they are coming from less predictable spots and forcing quarterbacks into all kind of mistakes. Their play offsets the questions at other spots for the defense, and helps set Luck and the offense up with good field position.

Nightmare scenario (2-14): Yes, it’s possible the first year of the Ryan Grigson-Chuck Pagano regime matches the last year of the Bill Polian-Jim Caldwell one.

The Colts will face Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in 2012. But if things go badly, plenty of second- and third-tier quarterbacks will also shred a patchwork secondary that added only safety Tom Zbikowski in free agency and Vaughn in a trade and got no help in the draft.

The defense can prove to have too few quality pieces to run a 3-4 or a 4-3 effectively, and if it’s giving up a lot of points, Luck will be dropping back a lot to try to lead comebacks. If a line of leftovers and castoffs can’t consistently fend off rushers, there will be trouble.

And should Luck get hurt and miss any time, the team will look to Drew Stanton or seventh-round pick Chandler Harnish. Either one is likely to leave fans pining for the halcyon days of Dan Orlovsky.

Also damaging would be the Texans ability to stay good and improvements from Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Colts got their two wins last season against the Titans and Texans late in the year.

Pressure point: Colts

May, 17, 2012
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NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Colts and why.

The Colts are changing in a big way on defense -- they aim to be bigger, more physical and better against the run. Although they talk of being a hybrid, they want to be a base 3-4 front.

To me, the pressure point will be split between two guys: Coach Chuck Pagano, the architect of the scheme, and the guy who will have to answer for its progress. His coordinator, Greg Manusky, will help spread the message, install the system and draw up game plans. The coach and his coordinator share the pressure for a unit that is converting high-quality 4-3 ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis into outside linebackers.

The two are excellent rushers, and there is risk in asking them to stand up and change. But they’ll be charging quarterbacks from a variety of spots, and offenses probably prefer to know where exactly they’ll be lining up.

Pagano helped Indianapolis land three players he coached in Baltimore: nose tackle Brandon McKinney, end Cory Redding, and safety Tom Zbikowski. The draft added only fifth-round nose tackle Josh Chapman and and seventh-round end Tim Fugger.

How much of the personnel deficiencies, especially in the secondary, can Pagano and Manusky cover up with scheme?

Colts: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Who’s playing pass defense for the Indianapolis Colts?

New coach Chuck Pagano will convert the Colts, a longtime 4-3 team, to a 3-4. He’s cited the Texans’ changeover a year ago as an example of how it can happen in one year and how the front actually gets scrambled up and can often still have the look of a 4-3.

In Year 1 for Pagano in Indianapolis, however, it’s the personnel that may dictate more of the old base front. The Colts signed a veteran nose tackle (Brandon McKinney) and a veteran end (Cory Redding), and drafted a nose tackle in fifth-rounder Josh Chapman. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be less predictable coming forward from outside linebacker positions.

The problem is in the secondary.

Indianapolis was 15th against the pass last year. But that ranking is misleading because offenses could run against the Colts and often handed off while trying to run time off the clock and preserve leads.

Antoine Bethea is a quality free safety and Jerraud Powers is a good corner. Beyond them, the Colts are thin and unproven in the defensive backfield.

They didn’t draft any defensive backs, though their initial undrafted rookie group of 15 includes five of them.

No matter how well the Colts rush out of the new front, the team needs people behind it who can cover, which is not the strong suit of the veteran addition to the group, strong safety Tom Zbikowski.

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