NFL Nation: Nate Washington

Your All-AFC South offense

January, 30, 2012
1/30/12
4:44
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Brown-MyersGetty ImagesDuane Brown (left) and Chris Myers anchored one of the best offensive lines in the league.
At long last, we start to unveil ESPN.com’s All-AFC South Team.

We’ll start with the offense.

It’s a tough assignment.

The second guy at some spots -- like Houston running back Arian Foster -- is superb, while the top guy at other spots was hardly as good and was not so clearly better than his competition.

But we forge ahead.

WRs: Wide receivers were not great this season, with Andre Johnson missing too much time to be eligible and not one Jacksonville player at the position worth a look. Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne remained productive on a team that played three bad quarterbacks and was unable to have many offensive days of note. Tennessee’s Nate Washington topped 1,000 yards and was a prime third-down target. He blossomed in a season when the Titans were desperate after Kenny Britt was lost early on.

LT: Houston’s Duane Brown gets the nod after a fine season. He was probably the second-best guy (to center Chris Myers) on one of the very best lines in the NFL. But Tennessee’s Michael Roos was very steady again and Jacksonville’s Eugene Monroe emerged as a player closer to the kind the Jaguars expected and need him to be. Both deserve mention.

LG: I struggled to find a left guard that was worthy of a spot here, so I reluctantly leave the spot open. The second-best guard in the division was Houston’s Mike Brisiel and, like Jacksonville’s Uche Nwaneri, he plays on the right. One film-watcher I spoke with said I should just go with the entire Texans group, but others thought left guard Wade Smith dropped off from his 2010 performance. Tennessee’s Leroy Harris pass-blocked well like all the Titans, but was part of the team’s run struggles.

C: Myers led Houston’s line, perhaps the best in the NFL. He’s super smart, efficient and effective. He’s also very much the group’s tone-setter and leader. Considering how much the team's scheme relies on the unit working together with lateral movements and cutting, Myers' leadership is incredibly valuable.

RG: A lot of Jaguars linemen were in and out of the lineup as the team had to shuffle and leaned on one rookie, Will Rackley. Nwaneri may have even outranked Monroe as the steadiest guy on a line that help spring Maurice Jones-Drew for a league-high 1,606 yards on a team that could hardly throw the ball.

RT: Tennessee’s David Stewart was very good, but Eric Winston had a very strong season. Winston wins out over Stewart because he was more balanced and the Texans were far more balanced.

TE: Not a great year for guys at a position that could be stacked if everyone was healthy for the full season and producing as they are capable of doing. I was leaning toward Tennessee’s Jared Cook based on a solid finish. But Cook didn't do enough early and scouting associates steered me to Owen Daniels, who was not at his best but was still a threat who helped offset the stretches without Johnson.

QB: Matt Schaub didn’t play enough for the Texans to offset Matt Hasselbeck's season. While Hasselbeck didn’t maintain the high level of play he showed early on, he was the most consistent and productive guy in the division and the only quarterback not named Warren Moon to pass for 3,500 yards for the Titans/Oilers.

FB: Greg Jones of the Jaguars blocked for the best running game in the division and the most productive running back in the division. Case closed.

RB: If we weren’t in a quarterback-dominated era and if running well translated to winning more, then Jones-Drew of the Jaguars would be in the running for offensive player of the year. Such things are not happening in today’s NFL. That does not detract from his remarkable season, which is what took to win this spot over Foster.
Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle recently wrote that if Peyton Manning is available, the Texans should be at the head of the line.
Sorry, Matt Schaub. Thanks for your service.

Schaub might be a solid quarterback, but a healthy Manning is more than solid. He is an all-time great.

No one knows if we are if we are talking about a healthy Manning, and he’d come with more risk of suffering another neck injury. Presuming he’s OK, in my view, you can look at all but six teams in the league and say the same thing Solomon is saying about the Texans. Simply insert the name of 25 other presumed starting quarterbacks in the Schaub slot in the above passage and it is intriguing.

Most teams aren’t big on scrapping long-range plans.

But most teams should be willing to change course given a chance at an all-time great quarterback in the rare instance when adding him is feasible and it would open a window during which they’d rank as a Super Bowl contender.

Much has been written about the teams most likely to court Manning the hardest: the Jets, Dolphins, Redskins and Cardinals top most lists.

Much has been said about an ideal fit: Add him to San Francisco, shore up the receivers and the Niners would be a Super Bowl favorite.

Let’s look at the scenario dreaming fans of the other three AFC South fans may be letting creep into their brains:

Houston

As Solomon writes, “Once Manning is let go he should be as interested in the Texans as they would be in him. There might not be a better fit for him in the NFL.”

The Texans could dominate a weak division. Gary Kubiak is a great offensive mind. Manning would be paired with an excellent run game and a fantastic receiver in Andre Johnson. The defense should continue to be quite good.

My feeling: It’s nice to imagine, but I just can’t picture the Texans going after him with the all-out sales pitch he’s likely to get from a lot of other places. They feel they now have good insurance for Schaub with T.J. Yates. But if you boil down the best option, it’s be Manning. Cap room would be an issue.

Jacksonville

New owner Shahid Khan has said he’s willing to spend and there is not a move that could make a bigger splash.

The Jaguars have excellent defensive personnel and if they add a rush end and re-stock at corner, they’ll be a top defense. They have the reigning rushing champ.

Their quarterback was horrible as a rookie. Put Blaine Gabbert behind Manning, acquire two or three receivers for him to throw to and the Jaguars would be instant contenders more than able to challenge the Texans.

My feeling: It makes sense and the Jaguars should take a swing even though it falls well outside their typical approach under general manager Gene Smith. I don’t imagine it’s the most attractive market for Manning, though he could really help put it, and Khan, on the map.

Tennessee

It won’t be long before those who still love Manning for what he did at the University of Tennessee clamor for him to finish his career with the Titans. It would mean the Titans part with Matt Hasselbeck and that Jake Locker would be planted on the bench longer than was the initial plan.

But put Manning on this team, with a great pass-protecting line, a healthy Kenny Britt, a stable of targets including Jared Cook, Nate Washington and Chris Johnson and the offense is instantly more dangerous.

My feeling: It’s too far outside the box for new general manager Ruston Webster to try it. But if owner Bud Adams fell in love with the idea and dictated that it happen, it would be a far better idea than the last time he forced a quarterback on his people.
We’ll wait until next week to start building the All-AFC South Team, and you’ll have a big chance to offer input there.

This week we’ll pass out hardware for individual awards.

Drum roll please:

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJohnathan Joseph, new to the Texans in 2011, helped revitalize Houston's secondary.
Player of the year: Johnathan Joseph, Texans cornerback. Runner up: Brian Cushing, Texans inside linebacker.

Joseph, Cushing and Antonio Smith were the players I sorted through here, and you can make a case for any of them. While the Texans were a better defense at every level, it was the secondary that had the biggest room for improvement. Joseph’s ability to match up with a team’s best receiver eased the pressure on everyone else in the secondary and helped transform a miserable pass defense into an excellent one. In the Texans’ playoff loss in Baltimore he blanketed Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, rendering him a non-factor.

Offensive player of the year: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars running back. Runner up: Arian Foster, Texans running back.

It’s hard to fathom that Jones-Drew was the NFL rushing champ considering that defenses could regularly key on him without fear of any real threat from the passing offense, which ranked dead last in the NFL. He showed no signs of wearing down and averaged 100 yards a game. It felt like a waste on a five-win team. Foster missed some action early with hamstring issues or he would have likely challenged Jones-Drew in rushing yards. He’s a tremendous combination of power and speed and does excellent work as a pass catcher.

Rookie of the year: J.J. Watt, Texans defensive end. Runner up: Brooks Reed, Texans outside linebacker.

Watt was installed as a starter the moment the Texans drafted him and was an impactful player from his first snap. A relentless player, he was a force against the run and the pass and played beautifully in concert with the rest of the defensive front. His ability to get his hands on balls at the line of scrimmage turned into a monumental interception return for a touchdown in the playoff win over Cincinnati. Reed filled in very well after Mario Williams was lost for the season and may actually help the team decide Williams is expendable.

Best assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Texans defensive coordinator. Runner up, Mel Tucker, Jaguars defensive coordinator.

Phillips was a factor in the personnel decisions that brought Joseph, Danieal Manning, Watt and Reed into the fold for Houston. In his first year as defensive coordinator, he injected a huge dose of confidence into the Texans defenders and wisely drew up schemes that featured guys’ strengths and marked their weaknesses. The sort of turnaround the defense made in one year is practically unheard of. In Jacksonville, Tucker was given a huge boost with new personnel, but as he took over play-calling from Jack Del Rio, he excelled.

Best position coach: Dave Ragone, Titans receivers coach. Runner up, Vance Joseph, Texans secondary coach.

Ragone had no experience working with receivers coming into this job, but did fantastic work. He deserves a great deal of credit for the vast improvement and maturation of Nate Washington and the emergence of Damian Williams as a threat and Lavelle Hawkins as a guy who did some good things with the ball in his hands. In his first season with the Texans, Joseph helped some guys regain confidence while overseeing a successful move of Glover Quin from corner to strong safety.

Executive of the year: Rick Smith, Texans general manager.

He had lots of help, but completely nailed free agency, signing Joseph and Manning rather than Nnamdi Asomugha. And the top of the draft was fantastic, with Watt and Reed. As Houston suffered injuries at running back, receiver, linebacker and even punter, the Texans showed good depth and an ability to fill in holes with quality outsiders.

Best unit: Texans offensive line. Runner up: Texans linebackers.

Led by center Chris Myers, who may be the division’s most unsung player, Houston’s offensive line blocked consistently well for the run game and protected three different quarterbacks well. Left tackle Duane Brown and right tackle Eric Winston both earned mentions on various All-Pro teams. Antoine Caldwell filled in nicely when Mike Brisiel missed time at right guard. The Texans linebackers, even without Mario Williams, did spectacular, work stuffing the run and swarming quarterbacks all season long.

Worst unit: Jaguars receivers. Runner up: Colts cornerbacks.

Mike Thomas might be a No. 2 receiver and can certainly be a good No. 3, though his play in 2011 dropped off after he got a contract extension. But Jason Hill, who started as the No. 2 guy, wound up getting cut and guys like Jarett Dillard, rookie Cecil Shorts, Chastin West and Kassim Osgood did little to show they were NFL-caliber guys. Blaine Gabbert suffered the consequences. The Colts were insufficiently stocked at corner, though Jacob Lacey bounced back well late in the season after he was benched.

Most improved: Nate Washington, Titans receiver. Runner up: Connor Barwin, Texans outside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Timothy T. Ludwig/US PresswireFollowing a big contract signing prior to the season, Titans RB Chris Johnson failed to play up to the high expectations.
Washington’s maturation was remarkable. An excitable guy really calmed down and settled in working under offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Ragone and with Matt Hasselbeck. Washington figured to be better with those guys while working as the No. 2 behind Kenny Britt, but Britt was lost for the season early on and Washington wound up with a 1,000-yard season and seven touchdowns. I give him the nod because I didn’t believe he had untapped upside. That was not the case with Barwin, who the Texans have expected to be a pass-rushing force since they drafted him in 2009.

Most disappointing: Chris Johnson, Titans running back. Runner up: Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars tight end.

I don’t care what sort of defenses are offered up for Johnson. He simply did not run as hard after coming out of a holdout with a giant new contract. There were other issues, but too often he appeared to lack fire and desire. In the rare instances he wound up in a one-on-one situation he was hardly the threat he’s been in the past. If he doesn’t bounce back in 2012, the contract will turn out to be disastrous. Lewis was supposed to be transformed by his MMA training during the lockout. If it impacted him, it made him worse. Expecting another 10 touchdowns was unreasonable. Producing none was unacceptable.

Best position revamp: TIE, Jaguars safeties and Texans safeties.

Both teams were terrible at the position a year ago and despite a draft class that was incredibly thin, reshaped the spot with great results. The Texans shifted Quin from cornerback and he was very solid alongside free-agent addition Manning. The Jaguars signed Dawan Landry from Baltimore and traded for Dwight Lowery, shifting a guy who’d played mostly corner to play with Landry. Applause to both teams for fine work addressing a trouble position.

Surprise of the year: T.J. Yates, Texans quarterback.

The finish in the playoff loss to Baltimore was a big disappointment. But Yates took over a good team when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down in quick succession and played beyond what could reasonably be expected from a fifth-round rookie quarterback.

Colt of the year: Pat Angerer, middle linebacker.

As Indianapolis was not mentioned here at all, we create this category for the Colts. Angerer showed himself to be a quality starter who has to be in the lineup going forward. That may mean the end of Gary Brackett, the veteran middle linebacker who was hurt in Week 1 and missed the season. Angerer is a rangy, instinctive player who’s sure to impress new general manager Ryan Grigson.

Titans regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Don McPeak/US PresswireThe Titans became a passing team this season behind the solid play of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Biggest surprise: The 9-7 record. The team was expected to suffer from the lockout and resulting lack of offseason work, but it came together and outperformed expectations given a new coach, new staff and new quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck had the best passing season in franchise history by anyone not named Warren Moon despite losing WR Kenny Britt early to a torn-up knee and not getting consistent production from running back Chris Johnson. Coach Mike Munchak set a tone and showed himself to be a straight-forward, well-measured coach who won the respect of his players. With a big contribution from their rookie class, the Titans started off well under a new regime.

Biggest disappointment: Johnson secured a big new contract after he billed himself as a playmaker, not just a running back. But he and the run game were so ineffective that the Titans became a passing team even with Britt on IR. Over half of Johnson's yards came in four wins over bad teams. And although the team consistently defended him, it was completely fair to question his effort. He often went down too easily, he didn’t make a guy miss when he wound up one-on-one and he didn’t work hard enough at his responsibilities without the ball in his hands. The team is hopeful it can get him back on track with an offseason in which he’s expected to be in Nashville far more often.

Biggest need: Defensive pieces. Rookie middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who was not part of the plan at the start of the season, was probably the best defensive player on the team at season’s end. That indicts a lot of other guys. The Titans have to rush the passer better to be more consistent on defense and they need more than Derrick Morgan, Jason Jones (who should go back to tackle), Dave Ball and William Hayes. Three safeties are heading toward free agency, so the Titans have a lot to sort through there, too.

Team MVP: Hasselbeck is the easiest choice. He played better than many of us expected and brought just the sort of leadership the Titans needed. But I’ll go with receiver Nate Washington, who became the No. 1 receiver with Britt’s injury and delivered a 1,000-yard season even with a bad ankle for the last part of the season. Washington thrived with the new coaching and new quarterbacks. His maturation serves as a symbol of what the Titans need from a lot of other guys at a lot of other spots.

Sorting out the secondary: Safeties Michael Griffin, Chris Hope and Jordan Babineaux and cornerback Cortland Finnegan all have expiring contracts. Finnegan probably draws an offer in free agency beyond what the Titans would give him. The team cannot make a long-term commitment with big money to the inconsistent Griffin. Hope is likely done. Babineaux played well and would be nice to retain. That’s a lot to decide on just in the secondary, but I’d expect a big infusion of new guys to work with young corners Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner.
James CaseyThomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesVersatile James Casey, left, and the Texans showed off their depth Sunday against the Titans.
HOUSTON -- The Texans sought to restore order and momentum in their season finale, while avoiding any more of the injury misfortune that’s beset them all season long.

Despite suffering a 23-22 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium, the team seemed to achieve those goals and is now ready to turn to its first postseason. As the No. 3 seed, the Texans will host the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Nobody’s disappointed,” said receiver Andre Johnson, who estimated he played 15 snaps as he worked back from a hamstring injury. “Of course we wanted to win the game. We didn’t come out on top, but there is next week. Some teams don’t have next week. We have next week.”

“Those first couple drives, we kind of had that swagger back a little bit,” said quarterback T.J. Yates, who left the game with a bruise of his non-throwing shoulder in the first quarter. “Everybody was aggressive, flying around, very talkative on the sideline. It felt like we were back to normal out there.”

A postseason appearance is definitely not normal for the Texans. Houston has an NFL playoff game for the first time since 1993.

Here are some things we learned along the way on Week 17’s game between the division’s two best teams:

Texans fullback James Casey remains a weapon: He’s not your standard fullback. The converted tight end started the Texans' first five games, then missed a couple with a chest injury and never got back ahead of the more traditional Lawrence Vickers.

But Casey’s really more of a pass-catcher than a blocker by nature, and the Titans did poorly in figuring out how to stop him from getting free for seven receptions on seven targets for a team-high 91 yards.

Casey helped get the Texans in range for one of Neil Rackers’ field goals with a brilliant catch, keeping the ball in the air with a left-handed tip before diving to collect it.

“We were lining up in different formations with different personnel, and as a defense it’s kind of hard to understand exactly what we’re going to do,” Casey said. “Because we’re not just doing base things. We’re motioning all over the place. They don’t know if I’m fullback or tight end. It’s tough sometimes for them to set their blitzes or their coverage. Hopefully you can get guys out of spots, out of gaps in the run game and out of their zones in the pass game and try to take advantage of that.”

Next week, with Johnson playing full time and Owen Daniels and Arian Foster back in the lineup, odds are Casey qualifies as only the fourth- or fifth-best receiving option when he’s on the field.

“James has some crazy hands,” Johnson said. “He’s probably the guy I’ve seen make the most one-handed catches. His hands are very, very good, I think he has the best hands on this team. I don’t know who has the best in the league, but I think he’s right up there.”

The Texans are quite deep: Typically a team that scratches key starters like Foster, Daniels and cornerback Johnathan Joseph for a game that doesn’t have great meaning, is willing to yield some. Especially if it doesn’t jump out to a lead.

And the Texans have proven all season they have quality depth, as they’ve replaced defensive end Mario Williams, quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, punter Brett Hartmann and linebacker Daryl Sharpton, and played stretches without Johnson, safety Danieal Manning and guard Mike Brisiel.

Sunday as they rested some guys and pulled others early, they called on even more depth.

Beyond Casey, the Texans got solid contributions from a lot of role players like receiver Bryant Johnson, running back Derrick Ward and linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bryan Braman, along with quarterback Jake Delhomme.

“It says we have quality players all across this locker room,” Foster said. “We have guys that can play.”

Said Titans receiver Nate Washington: “This is a new Texans team that they take pride in. Even their backups come in there and they are playing hard. They’re going to make plays. We have to find a better way to close out those games.”

One piece of depth they were missing: a center behind Chris Myers who could make a quality shotgun snap in the clutch. The Texans could have won it with a 2-point conversion at the end, but guard Thomas Austin put the shotgun snap over Delhomme’s head at the end of the game. Kubiak said Austin had snapped enough that it shouldn’t have been an issue.

Kubiak understands a “meaningless” game: He’s never been a playoff head coach before, but he’s been part of a lot of good teams. That’s why he didn’t hesitate after Bryant Johnson’s 5-yard touchdown reception with 14 second left to keep his offense on the field for a 2-point try.

Even after Joel Dreessen’s false start, Kubiak stuck with it.

He wanted a win, sure, but he wanted overtime even less.

It was a smart call and the right call, even if Tennessee defensive end Derrick Morgan didn’t agree.

“I understand they want to get the game over with, but after they false started and they still went for 2, I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “That’s a slap in the face. But they botched the snap, so whatever.”

Final Word: AFC South

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Pressure tells the story: The Houston Texans sack or put quarterbacks under duress 28.0 percent of the time, the highest rate in the NFL. No one has a front that swarms as consistently as Houston's. The Tennessee Titans are recording a sack or putting quarterbacks under duress on 18.4 percent of opponent dropbacks this season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. If Matt Hasselbeck is under constant pressure and T.J. Yates isn’t, this game will lean toward the Texans despite the fact that Tennessee has much more at stake.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Jones-Drew
Don McPeak/US PresswireMaurice Jones-Drew has 1,437 rushing yards on the season and a sizable lead in the rushing-title race.
Big milestones in range: Maurice Jones-Drew has a 128-yard lead on the rushing title heading into the day, but the Jacksonville Jaguars would surely like to guarantee that the running back secures the honor. He will be just the sixth back since 1970 to lead the league in rushing on a team with five wins or fewer and the fifth to lead the league in rushing on the NFL’s worst passing team. Tennessee receiver Nate Washington is 69 yards from a 1,000-yard season, which would be a giant accomplishment on this Titans team. Ben Tate could see a good share of carries against the Titans, but the 155 rushing yards needed to get him to 1,000 for the season is probably too much to expect.

Hands in the air: Houston is very good at batting balls down near the line of scrimmage. ESPN Stats & Info says the Texans have batted down a league-high 19 passes at the line of scrimmage this season. No other team has more than 14 (Miami Dolphins). Hasselbeck is susceptible to linemen getting their paws on his throws. He has had 13 passes batted down this season, tied with the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez for the most in the NFL. Hasselbeck had his worst game of the season in the Oct. 23 loss to the Texans. To win this one, the Titans are going to need a good passing day. Hasselbeck needs 226 passing yards to become just the second Oilers/Titans quarterback to throw for 3,500 yards in a season, joining Hall of Famer Warren Moon. Moon did it in 1989, 1990 and 1991.

Open it up: The Jaguars don’t have the pass protection or the weapons to create a lot of big plays down the field. The Indianapolis Colts have gotten far better defense as they’ve won two straight, but they still have unproven guys in the secondary. With nothing to lose, the Jaguars should not try to play it safe with short passes -- look what that did for the Titans and Texans the past two weeks against Indianapolis. When they are not handing the ball to MJD, the Jaguars should chip Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as needed and tell Blaine Gabbert to test the pass coverage deep. I’ve written they should go crazy a few times this season. In the last game for this coaching staff, why not take chances?

Also: Despite being inactive for two games and sidelined for much of another, Arian Foster has rushed for at least 100 yards in a league-high seven games. Since the start of the 2010 season, Foster leads the league in rush yards (2,840), rush touchdowns (26) and first downs (147). ... Only the New York Giants' Jake Ballard (15.9) has a higher yards per catch average than Jared Cook (15.5) among tight ends with significant action. … Gabbert had been sacked 37 times (tied for third-most in the NFL) and has the lowest passer rating (64.3) and QBR (21.3) among quarterbacks who have had significant playing time this season.
Johnathan JosephAP Photo/Steve RuarThe Texans say that CB Johnathan Joseph's work ethic has been as important as his cover skills.
Make a case for New Orleans running back Darren Sproles if you'd like. Philadelphia defensive end Jason Babin has been a sack machine. Matt Hasselbeck could get some votes for his work as a culture changer and quarterback in Tennessee.

But my vote for the best free-agent addition in 2011 goes to Johnathan Joseph, the Houston cornerback who’s been the key component in a transformation of the Texans’ secondary.

A miserable pass defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last season now stands tied for second, a ridiculous jump that could only happen with multiple ingredients:

New coordinator Wade Phillips and his new 3-4 scheme.

A consistent rush from a swarming defensive front, bolstered by the team’s top two rookies, end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed.

And the addition of Joseph and safety Danieal Manning to a young secondary.

“Joseph has been exactly what they needed,” a scout told me this week. “After a horrible first-round draft pick in 2010 in Kareem Jackson, they made up for it with Joseph. He is fast, athletic and can match up with most receivers in the AFC. He plays bigger than his size (5-foot-11, 191 pounds), because he has good functional strength.

“The added pass rush has helped him, but he is a good player versus run and pass. He was added to the top of the group which allowed players like Jackson and others to play more of a role instead of trying to get things out of them that they were not capable of doing.”


Joseph has regularly matched up with the opponent’s best wide receiver, and his work earned him a Pro Bowl spot.

Sunday, when the Titans are in their base offense and Nate Washington lines up outside, Joseph will track him. In his first two years in the league after he was the 24th pick out of South Carolina in the 2006 draft, Joseph played on the right. The three years after that he was on the left.

Flipping around hasn’t been a problem and he’s happy to be looked at to slow an opponent’s best guy.

“It was something new that I had to adjust to,” Joseph said. “If that gives us our best chance to win, that’s what I am up for. Covering the top guy, you’ve got to go out each week and try to win your battle. We have a saying here about going out and being 1-0, whether it’s one play at a time or one game at a time. If you’re on the top guy, you’re going to get some balls thrown your way.”

The Colts’ Reggie Wayne, the Raiders’ Darrius Heyward-Bey and the Ravens’ Anquan Boldin had big games against the Texans. (Joseph covered Pierre Garcon in both games against Indianapolis.) But in their past nine games, no receiver has accounted for more than 82 yards against them. That was Carolina’s Steve Smith.

The Texans have played 75 percent man coverage, according to defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. He said his top corner has been a fantastic example for the Texans' stable of young, contributing defensive backs: safeties Glover Quin, who’s been excellent as a starter converted from corner, and Troy Nolan, and corners Jackson, Brice McCain and Sherrick McManis.

“He’s practiced every day,” Vance Joseph said. “That was important for our young secondary to see. Every day he was out there working whether he was sore from the game, sore from previous injuries. He worked every day. Those guys take his lead. Every day was game mode, every ball was contested, every ball they could pick off they picked off.

“So that’s the foundation of what we’ve been here on the back end. Johnathan wants to be the best and he’s worked to be the best every day. That’s been amazing for a veteran player of his caliber to come in and practice every day.”

Houston grabbed Joseph from the Bengals with a five-year, $48.75 million contract with $23.5 guaranteed. The Texans were players for Nnamdi Asomugha, the cornerback who was viewed as a singular prize player in free agency. But Asomugha moved slowly, and the Texans feared winding up without either Asomugha or Joseph. Plus, Joseph’s price meant the team could also add Manning at safety.

They were lauded for the strategy and it panned out perfectly.

Pro Football Focus rates Joseph as just the 10th best cornerback in the league at this point. The website can’t always know coverage assignments, but it says he’s given up three touchdowns, catches against him have averaged 12.3 yards, the passer rating on throws into his coverage is 71.3 and quarterbacks have completed 57.9 percent of balls thrown against him.

Those numbers aren’t worthy of being posted in neon lights. But in the context of the Texans’ defense and the Texans’ season, his play has been excellent.

The team and a lot of NFL people agree with Joseph that, so far, things could not have turned out any better. He’s got four interceptions, 15 passes defensed, a forced fumble and rave reviews.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it’s been a 10,” Joseph said. “It’s been an awesome experience coming in here, being with the guys, adjusting to the different way things are done here. It’s been tremendous all together. There is not one bad thing I can say about the experience that I’ve had.”

Jared Cook helps Titans stay alive

December, 24, 2011
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CookDon McPeak/US PresswireJared Cook had eight catches for a franchise-record 169 receiving yards against the Jaguars.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer polls his quarterbacks on their three favorite plays out of each week’s game plan.

Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and Rusty Smith all voted this week for a deep crossing route.

It was a play the Titans ran with great success in a 23-17 Christmas Eve win over the Jaguars that kept Tennessee in contention for the sixth and final berth in the AFC playoff field.

The Titans need to finish in a three-way tie at 9-7 with the Bengals and Jets or with the Bengals and Raiders to earn the No. 6 seed.

The trio of signal-callers often votes the same way in separate, secret balloting which influences Palmer’s approach, Hasselbeck said.

“It’s mental telepathy or something,” he said. “We get along really well, we like the same plays. They think we’re cheating off of each other, but we’re not.”

Rarely does the favored play contribute so heavily to a favored result.

Hasselbeck leaned on it heavily and posted strong passing numbers despite two interceptions, with 24 completions in 40 pass attempts, for 350 yards and a touchdown.

Tight end Jared Cook is a big, fast, receiver-like threat. He disappears at times and has not been featured the way many of us expected he would be this season. In Week 15 he lost a deadly fumble in Indianapolis when the Titans were mounting a charge.

But he keyed this Titans win with eight catches for 169 yards and the 55-yard score on a mismatch with Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who was left in an unreasonably difficult spot by the coverage.

No tight end for the Titans or Oilers ever collected so much receiving yardage in one game. The previous record was 150 by Houston’s Dave Casper in 1980.

While the Jaguars have a strong front seven, they do not have particularly threatening edge pass-rushers. That helped the Titans feel comfortable lining Cook up less often next to a tackle, and more often in a two-by-two set, as if he were a receiver in a four-wide formation.

Nate Washington, also in a slot, typically drew nickelback Drew Coleman in coverage. Hasselbeck said that also helped get Cook into open space more often than usual.

Cook said the Titans talked all week about the opportunities they’d find against an injury-depleted Jaguars defense. The Jaguars are without both their starting corners, Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, and played Saturday minus starting safety Dwight Lowery. That meant Ashton Youboty and Morgan Trent started at corner and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was in the lineup at safety.

Youboty suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter, and couldn't finish the game. He was replaced by David Jones, a player Jacksonville decided was not part of its future at the end of training camp.

Combine all that change with a gimpy Chris Johnson, who sprained an ankle last week, and the Titans decided to push it with the pass.

“We kind of looked at the first-15 script and saw there was a little change up from the normal,” Cook said, referring to the preordained 15 plays the Titans wanted to run out of the gate if the situations permitted for them. “We kind of got excited. So kudos to coach Palmer for kind of doing that and catching the defense off guard.”

Not to harp, but… While the Titans are over last week’s loss at previously winless Indianapolis, I can’t help wonder how things might be different for them had they taken this approach a week earlier against the Colts, who rush the passer better but also have a secondary minus three starters.

“It’s just hard to predict games,” Hasselbeck said.

It’s hard, too, to predict what happens in all the games that influence the Titans’ chances next week.

But the Texans are locked into the third seed, and have nothing to gain with a win and nothing to lose with a loss. If the Titans find their way in, their opponent isn’t in question. They’ll go right back to Houston for a wild-card game.

The Titans know they’ve blown a ton of chances that would have left them in a better spot.

“We’re alive,” guard Jake Scott said. “That’s all you can ask for right now. We’ve got to handle our business and hope for the help that we need.”

Final Word: AFC South

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Blitzing Cam Newton: The Texans have thrived when sending five or more pass-rushers. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Houston blitzes on 52.1 percent of drop-backs, second only to New Orleans. They allow a 48.2 completion percentage, only 5.5 yards per attempt, and have recorded 20 of their 24 sacks. Newton has thrown seven touchdowns and three interceptions in such circumstances. But he’s also taken 18 sacks, as many as any quarterback in the NFL. Linebacker coach Reggie Herring will work as the defensive coordinator with Wade Phillips recovering from kidney and gallbladder surgery. But Phillips drew up the plan, and the Texans should be doing what they've been doing.

[+] EnlargeNate Washington
Jim Brown/US PresswireTitans receiver Nate Washington had two TD receptions against the Colts on Oct. 30.
Rematch: The Titans beat the Colts in the first matchup 27-10 on Oct. 30 in Nashville. Nate Washington caught two touchdown passes and Patrick Bailey blocked a punt that Jason McCourty recovered for a score. Curtis Painter attempted 49 passes in that game. I think the Titans would be thrilled if Dan Orlovsky dropped back anywhere near that often, as he’s mistake-prone, and the more Indianapolis has to rely on him the better the chance at interceptions, sacks and fumbles. Defensive end Dave Ball and tackle Karl Klug could be primed to force a turnover or two. Tennessee has not swept the Colts since 2002, the first year of realignment.

Serious scoring defense: During their seven-game winning streak the Texans have allowed fewer than 20 points a game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team with such a streak was the 2005 Bears, who held eight consecutive opponents under 20 points during an eight-game win streak. Carolina has topped 20 points in 10 of its 13 games, and has averaged nearly 31 points a game over its past four.

Rest and recovery: There is not a lot that can happen for the Jaguars to change things in their last two games. But they’ve got a weekend off now after Thursday night’s beat-down in Atlanta. They finish with division games at Tennessee and against Indianapolis. So we’ll see how Mel Tucker can get a battered team ready for familiar opponents and if the Jaguars are able to get Maurice Jones-Drew the yards he needs to secure a rushing title.

Tidbits: Since Washington became a regular in 2006, his 14.9 yards per catch is the seventh-highest average in the NFL. … Arian Foster is 43 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing, and Ben Tate is 180 yards shy of 1,000. When they both get there, they’ll become just the seventh set of teammates to hit the mark in the same season. … Texans receivers have dropped 11 passes, tied with Minnesota for fewest in the NFL this season. … Newton’s 39.2 red zone completion percentage is the third-worst in the league.

Guts, near glory for Nate Washington

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
10:45
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Nate WashingtonDon McPeak/US PresswireReceiver Nate Washington battled multiple injuries to help keep the Titans competitive on Sunday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nate Washington didn’t need to illustrate that he was ailing during his postgame chat with reporters in the locker room. We believed him.

But as his (bad) luck would have it, while he discussed a re-aggravated ankle injury and back troubles, he endured another wave of back spasms.

He passed on an invitation to sit. Then later he asked if it was OK if he moved to a chair.

Washington was the offensive star for the Titans in a 22-17 loss to New Orleans that damaged their playoff hopes but also showed that in bad circumstances they can hang with one of the NFL’s best teams. Tennessee had several chances to win it at the end, largely thanks to Washington’s six catches for 130 yards and a touchdown.

The career high in receiving yardage came after a week of no practice because of the painful ankle injury he suffered last week in Buffalo.

It didn’t come in a win, but it’s the pinnacle of his time in Tennessee.

He signed a six-year, $27 million contract with $9 million guaranteed in 2009. In his first two seasons after signing as a free agent from Pittsburgh, he was best known for his drops and he faced more questions about immaturity than the sort of big plays the Titans were expecting.

But all kind of forces have converged in one place for Washington this season, among them a new coaching staff, two new quarterbacks and an early season-ending injury to No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt.

He came into the day as the NFL leader in third-down receptions, a true sign of quarterback and playcaller confidence.

And it’s not overstating to say he’s been transformed.

In 2009 and 2010, he could be a mouthy, overly rambunctious locker-room presence, often in the center of loud debates after practice, arguments that could reach nonsensical levels.

He’s mellowed considerably, often coming across as contemplative, running his hand through his beard while speaking in low tones.

I think he used to think he was underrated, and he could bristle when asked about drops or even when he overheard a teammate being asked about one. Now, though he’s put himself in few bad situations, he qualifies as stand-up.

Initially reluctant to shift inside to the slot in three-wide packages, he’s thrived there.

The team is relying on him much more.

“The mentality of this team has taken me there,” Washington said. “I owe a lot to [receivers coach] Dave Ragone and to this coaching staff. They really believe in me.”

In what might have ranked as the biggest play of the game had the Titans found a way to win, Washington made an incredibly heady choice despite his throbbing ankle and pulsing back.

After he pulled in a 40-yard catch at the New Orleans 5-yard line and got pinballed by two defenders, he was hurting big time. Still, he had the presence of mind to get up and get set to allow Jake Locker to spike the ball and stop the clock with 7 seconds left.

Washington then went down, and attentive teammate Chris Johnson literally dragged him off the field.

Had officials had to stop the clock after either play, the Titans would have been subject to a 10-second runoff because they had no timeouts, and the game would have ended.

“I knew I had to get up, that time was short,” he said. “At the same time, my ankle was hurting so bad. Somebody had hit me in my back and I started having spasms. I have to be better. I could have done a better job. I wish I could have stayed in, I wish I could have given these guys a little more.”

Said Ragone: “His football intelligence and IQ are, maybe not downplayed, just not talked about. He’s always talking about coverage. And the one thing that I respect is that when he’s telling me something, I can see it on film that he’s right most of the time. It’s good evidence on his part that he can recognize it and give it back. It allows the quarterback to trust him more, too.”

Washington repeatedly mentioned how he wasn’t “hanging his crown” on anything he’s done yet. He was sure to talk up his teammates and the Titans’ warrior mentality. He said he wasn’t the only guy hurting and working through it, just perhaps the most visible. He also spoke out against what he viewed as dirty play by Saints safety Roman Harper.

He’s a leader now. Back when he first met Ragone, it’s something the position coach told Washington should be expected of a seventh-year guy.

“A lot of these guys are looking to me now as a guy who’s going to push them in the right direction,” Washington said. “So with that being said I know I have to fly straight, I have to do things right. I’m not afraid of it, I accept it. From now on whenever these guys need me, I’ll be there...”

“I’m happy about the progress that I’ve made, but I think I have a long way to go. I think I have a lot more learning to do and I have a lot more plays that I can make.”

Titans spout off on Saints

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
7:21
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The Tennessee Titans are blowing the whistle on the New Orleans Saints.

Tennessee offensive linemen Jake Scott and Michael Roos said a whistle was being blown in the area of the Saints’ bench late in New Orleans' 22-17 victory against the Titans.

"Everybody on our side heard something, we're not sure where it came from exactly,’’ Roos said. “But it sounded like from over there, and until we know more I can't really say anything else. It's not something that should be done but until we can have somebody look at it, we'll have to wait and see."

Scott said the team’s television show “Titans All Access’’ caught the sound of a whistle on tape. A Saints spokesman said the team would have no immediate comment.

That wasn’t the only controversy out of the Tennessee locker room. Titans receiver Nate Washington spouted off about a play in which New Orleans safety Roman Harper was called for a facemask when tackling Damian Williams.

"Honestly, (Harper is) a dirty player," Washington said. "We watched film on him, he's dirty. And I don't appreciate it, I'm going to step out in public and say it: He's dirty.

"That was dirty what he did, it's unfortunate that he grabbed the facemask -- at the same time you don't walk over a guy and nudge him with your knee. You don't do that. That's dirty. And honestly, that's a dirty player, flat out. This is not just one game. He's been doing it all season. And I'm tired of it. I hope the league did something about it."
Displeased with the Saints after Sunday’s loss to New Orleans, a couple members of the Tennessee Titans aired their complaints.

Right guard Jake Scott said he thought someone at the Saints' bench was blowing a whistle late in the game that was conflicting with the whistles of the game officials. A producer of the Titans’ weekly TV show could hear it through a microphone being worn by left tackle Michael Roos.

And receiver Nate Washington had a big issue with the way safety Roman Harper took Damian Williams down by his facemask and then stepped over him, calling Harper "a dirty player."

My more detailed account of the accusations can be found here, on the ESPN.com NFL news page.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 22, Titans 17

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
4:33
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thoughts on the Titans’ 22-17 loss to the Saints at LP Field:

What it means: A largely unfavorable day. The Titans lost while one of the teams they are fighting with for position for a wild card berth, the Jets, won. The Texans’ last-second win in Cincinnati means that Houston clinched the AFC South, but it hurt another wild card competitor, the Bengals.

What I didn’t like: Penalties were out of control. Mike Munchak’s team is supposed to be a disciplined bunch, but special teams and the offensive line were primary culprits. Eight penalties for 54 yards consistently slowed the Titans or helped the Saints. A couple mistakes will happen, but on this scale it’s both unacceptable and unsurvivable. The Saints were sloppy too, but Drew Brees found his moments. And at times, like when he had all day to throw to an open Marques Colston at the goal line, a high pass wasn’t a problem as the receiver had time and space to go up and get it, then get it in the end zone for a 35-yard score. His follow up touchdown throw to Colston, from 28 yards, fell neatly between Alterraun Verner and Cortland Finnegan.

What I liked: Jake Locker put a good ball on him and banged up receiver Nate Washington made a great play looking it in while Jabari Greer flew by a second late for a 40-yard touchdown with 5:58 left in the game that closed it to 22-17. He hit him again right near the end for another 40.

What I didn't like: The Titans' last two plays from the 5-yard line. The first was well-defended by Tracy Porter, but I question throwing to Marc Mariani no matter if Washington was out hurt. Locker ran and bought time on the last play, but has to at least try a throw instead of getting sacked.

What I want to know: What’s the trade-off between an aggressive third-and-1 call with a throw into the end zone when you then fail to convert the quarterback sneak on fourth down? We're talking the Titans' second-to-last drive there.

Injury concerns: Matt Hasselbeck suffered a left calf injury that knocked him out of the game, thought he limped on and hopped off for one play when Locker took a tough shot to the ribs. Linebacker Akeem Ayers suffered a shoulder injury and No. 2 running back Javon Ringer injured his hand. Neither returned to action after getting hurt. Washington had to be tugged off the field by Chris Johnson after his late catch.

What’s next: The Titans head for Indianapolis for their second game against the winless, division-rival Colts.

Titans not inconsistent, just average

November, 20, 2011
11/20/11
10:33
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Michael TurnerDaniel Shirey/US PresswireTennessee was unable to contain Michael Turner as he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown.
ATLANTA -- The Titans are getting mislabeled.

They are not an inconsistent team. If anything, their 23-17 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome made them even more predictable.

Over their past eight games, the formula’s been simple: They have beaten bad teams and lost to good ones.

It’s easy to see they are better than Denver, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Carolina. It’s just as clear they are not in a class with Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

The Titans are too sloppy, don’t find enough big plays and don’t match up well enough with quality teams. Ten games into the season, they’re 5-5 and it’s exactly what they deserve.

Sunday they played good enough red zone defense to stay in the game, but could never get back to even from 13-0 and 23-3 deficits.

A look at three key issues for Tennessee coming out of the game:

The quarterback situation: Matt Hasselbeck banged his elbow as he threw late in the third quarter. He couldn’t generate any power on the ball after that, so doctors had him yield to rookie Jake Locker.

“He did exactly what a second-team quarterback should do when he gets an opportunity,” coach Mike Munchak said.

Locker moved right and hit Nate Washington, who stiff-armed a defender and ran to the end zone on a 40-yard touchdown play. In the fourth quarter, working in hurry-up mode out of the shotgun, he ran for 11 yards on a third-and-10, he hit tight end Jared Cook for 22 yards on a fourth-and-17 and he found Washington for another touchdown with 3:09 left in the game.

The defense, however, couldn’t get provide him a chance to engineer a game-winning drive.

Locker finished with a 107.3 passer rating, but the Titans diffused any possibility of a quarterback controversy.

Hasselbeck is sore and he had ice wrapped around the inside of his left elbow and forearm as he spoke to the press. He said he’ll have an MRI Monday. Munchak said he wasn’t about to make a change based on the small sampling of Locker. If Hasselbeck is fine, “he’s the quarterback, there is no doubt about that.”

While Hasselbeck hardly has his best game -- 13-of-25 passing for 124 yards, an interception and a 49.4 passer rating -- the Titans aren’t going to forget how large a role he’s played in many of their good moments this season.

“Jake kind of puts a defense on its heels a little bit, because you’ve got a younger guy who can run,” receiver Lavelle Hawkins said. “That’s taking nothing away from Matt, because Matt is a great mind who knows how to read a lot of stuff and sees a lot of things before they happen. I think either, or is great.”

Making mistakes: Munchak’s Titans were supposed to be a disciplined team that executed precisely. But there was a major lack of precision in key moments against the Falcons.

The Falcons went for it on fourth-and-1 twice in the second half.

They motioned and reset, then motioned and reset again, making it seem like they were merely waiting for the defense to jump. On the first instance, Matt Ryan had the ball snapped and snuck at an unexpected time in the long sequence of shuffling.

And on the second, defensive end William Hayes was flagged for jumping offsides.

“There is no excuse for me doing that, it’s fourth-and-1, I’ve got to be patient,” Hayes said. “They got me.”

He actually got bailed out as Colin McCarthy forced a Michael Turner fumble on the next play and Will Witherspoon recovered it.

That’s when Locker took the Titans on the 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to six with 3:06 left.

With three timeouts and the two-minute warning, Tennessee then needed to force a punt to get Locker the ball back.

And on the very first play from scrimmage, safety Jordan Babineaux slipped off Turner, allowing him to spring free for a 27-yard gain. Two Jason Snelling carries and a 6-yard Harry Douglas catch later and Ryan was ready to take a knee three times and shake some hands.

The Titans failed to slow Atlanta’s stars. Ryan passed for 316 yards, Turner ran for 100 and receiver Roddy White pulled in seven catches for 147 yards.

On top of that, the Titans were flagged for 10 penalties. They accounted for 86 yards and five of the Falcons’ 25 first downs.

“We didn’t play smart for 60 minutes,” Munchak said.

Mixed up routes: It seems every game the receivers have at least one mixed-up moment that costs Tennessee a chance or causes a problem.

The Titans were behind only 7-0 when the biggie in this game arrived.

Hasselbeck threw up the left side and Hawkins appeared to be out of position as cornerback Dunta Robinson intercepted the pass.

The receiver stopped running, looking around puzzled instead of pouncing to touch Robinson while he was down. Robinson got up and ran for 14 yards.

Guard Jake Scott yelled at Hawkins over the failure to stop a return. Hasselbeck pointed and screamed as he left the field, clearly annoyed by the way the play unfolded.

Damian Williams, who ran a post on the same side of the field, said the underneath receiver is supposed to cut in if the Titans are running it or cut out if they are throwing it. He said he was partially to blame for not getting the check communicated.

Said Hasselbeck: “I believe what happened is when I checked, Hawk wasn’t looking at me. I think when I checked they were adjusting who was on the ball, who was off the ball. I was trying to throw it to Hawk, yes. I’m not sure if he knew it was a pass or not.”

Mistakes will happen, I understand.

If the Titans are getting 1.1 yards a carry from Chris Johnson, they need to be an exact passing offense, however. Under the previous regime, Hawkins didn’t get on the field much because he was regarded as undependable.

On that and the Titans being average or worse, things don’t appear to have changed much.

Titans hanging in at half in Atlanta

November, 20, 2011
11/20/11
5:50
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ATLANTA -- The Tennessee Titans are fortunate to still be in their game with the Atlanta Falcons at the half.

Atlanta drove to an easy touchdown on its first possssion. Then Tennessee’s defense twice buckled down in the red zone after solid Falcons' marches, forcing the Falcons to settle for Matt Bryant field goals.

The Titans did well to move the ball in a two minute drive, getting a 46-yard field goal out of Rob Bironas just before the half.

It’s 13-3 though it feels a lot worse.

If the Titans can come out of intermission, play some defense and piece a scoring drive together, they’ll be right in the thick of it.

And the longer they can stay in the thick of it, on the road against a team that appears to have superior talent, the better, of course.

The Titans seemed to have a feeling for getting Nate Washington open and Javon Ringer’s done nice work as a pass-catcher. I’d like to see more of both.

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