2012 NFL Season Preview: AFC South
The race for the 2012 AFC South Division title doesn’t have a whole lot of intrigue to it. This is really a one horse race, with no team in the division coming close to matching the talent level of the preseason favorite Houston Texans. The Texans won the division rather easily in 2011, even while playing with their 3rd string quarterback and without their star wide receiver Andre Johnson. With a healthy Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson now back in the fold, the gap between the haves and the have-not’s in the AFC South just got a whole lot wider. Not that there isn’t any excitement whatsoever among the other teams within the division. New regimes are now in place in Indianapolis and Jacksonville and the Tennessee Titans are pretty excited about the potential of quarterback Jake Locker, who showed a lot of promise in limited action in 2011. Each of these three teams still has a lot of developing and maturing to do, though, so there will be high’s and low’s. While the gap may be gaping this year, don’t expect it to stay that way for long. Andrew Luck will soon show everyone why he is the best quarterback prospect to come along in over a decade and the Jacksonville Jaguars are quietly building one of the best defenses in the NFL. It may take another year or two, but the sense of urgency to win now in Houston is definitely present with the Titans, Jaguars, and Colts sure to soon be breathing on the necks of the Texans.
Prediction: 12-4, 1st place, AFC South
2011 Record: 10-6
Key Additions: QB John Beck, ILB Bradie James, CB Alan Ball, RB Justin Forsett, P Donnie Jones, K Shayne Graham, OLB Whitney Mercilus, WR Devier Posey, WR Keyshawn Martin, G/C Ben Jones, OG Brandon Brooks, DE Jared Crick, K Randy Bullock
Key Departures: ILB DeMeco Ryans, OLB Mario Williams, OT Eric Winston, OG Mike Brisiel, WR Jacoby Jones, TE Joel Dreessen, CB Jason Allen, FB Lawrence Vickers, QB Matt Leinert, K Neil Rackers
Expectations are sky high in Houston as the Texans are coming off of their first ever playoff appearance, division title, and playoff victory. The Texans, behind their “Next Man Up” mantra, overcame injuries and adversity to finish the season 10-6 and earn a playoff berth behind third string quarterback T.J. Yates. Now, starting quarterback Matt Schaub is back and healthy and the Texans have Super Bowl on their minds as they prepare for the 2012 season.
About the only thing standing in the way of the Houston Texans and another AFC South Division title is the Houston Texans. The Texans are the far superior team in terms of experience and talent to their division foes. There’s no mystery as to the identity of the Texans. Their offense runs through one of the best running backs in the NFL, Arian Foster, and their defense is arguably the best in all of football, with apologies to the San Francisco 49ers.
The key to the Texans’ 2012 season is the health of quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson. You know what you’ll get from the Texans’ two headed rushing attack of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, as they led the Texans to the league’s 2nd best rushing attack in 2011, simply hammering their opponents on the ground. Much ado has been made over the departure of Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, the right side of the Texans’ offensive line in 2011, but Rashad Butler and Antoine Caldwell are more than capable of filling their shoes. The zone blocking scheme that the Texans use in their rushing attack historically has a knack for making unheralded offensive linemen look pretty good. The greater question may be how well Butler holds up in pass protection. In his 4 starts in 2010 at left tackle, Rashad Butler allowed 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, and 14 hurries. While those numbers did come from the blind side, they are nonetheless a bit disconcerting.
After such a promising start to the 2011 season, it was a major disappointment to see Schaub’s season end with a Lisfranc injury. All reports indicate that Schaub is now 100% and that the injury is completely behind him. As good of a job as T.J. Yates did filling in for Schaub in 2011, the Texans need a full, healthy season from their starting quarterback if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans next February. In the 10 games that Schaub played in 2011, he threw for 2,500 yards, 15 TD’s, and just 6 interceptions. Andre Johnson again proved in the playoffs in 2012 why he is such a vital part of this team’s offense. Johnson caught 13 balls for 201 yards and a touchdown in the Texans’ two playoff games last season from backup quarterback T.J. Yates. Johnson has been plagued with leg injuries over the past year, and with a lack of depth at wide receiver, his health is critical to the Texans’ offense. The Texans did draft two wide receivers in the 2012 NFL Draft, Devier Posey and Keyshawn Martin. Keep an eye out for Martin, a 6’ tall receiver who will work a lot out of the slot in Houston. The Texans have not had a slot receiver of Martin’s caliber in quite some time and he has drawn rave reviews thus far out of training camp. He could quickly emerge as a go to option for Matt Schaub early in the 2012 season.
Defensively, the Bulls On Parade, as the Texans’ defense is affectionately referred to in Houston, will be back in full force in 2012 despite the departure of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. As good as Super Mario is, the Texans proved that they can get after the quarterback without him. Williams played in just 5 games in 2011, yet the Texans still finished with 44 sacks, 6th most in the NFL. Overall, Houston finished 3rd in the league against the pass, allowing just 6.2 yards per pass attempt to opposing quarterbacks.
The Texans boast what is by far the deepest front seven in football. The outside linebackers, led by starters Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Brooks Reed (6 sacks in 11 games), are backed up by two outstanding players, 1st round pick Whitney Mercilus and special teams demon Bryan Braman. On the defensive line, J.J. Watt was quite possibly the best 5-technique in the NFL as a rookie last season. It’s hard to believe he could get much better, but he will. Pro Bowler Antonio Smith continues to lead the defensive line and create havoc opposite of Watt as well. Smith and Watt each finished the season with seven sacks and finished 2nd and 4th, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ “Pass Rush Productivity” Ratings among 3-4 defensive ends. In other words, there’s no better combo in the NFL.
The secondary is led by Pro Bowl corner Jonathan Joseph, who picked off 4 passes and held quarterbacks to a 71.3 QB Rating against him in 2011. The biggest question mark will obviously be third year player Kareem Jackson, Houston’s 2010 first round draft pick. Jackson got abused in 2011, allowing 10 yards per pass attempt thrown his way and 16.4 yards per reception. The Texans signed veteran CB Alan Ball away from Dallas just in case, but Kareem Jackson needs to up his level of play or opposing offensive coordinators will surely find ways to exploit him with the deep ball.
The Texans’ schedule is soft on both the front and back ends but brutal in the middle. Houston kicks off the season with matchups against the Dolphins and Jaguars, two confidence boosting-type of games. They finish off the year with two games against the Colts and one against the Minnesota Vikings. In between, the Texans have their hands full, with games against the Packers, Broncos, Lions, Ravens, Bears, and the Patriots. If the Texans can keep Matt Schaub healthy, there’s no reason to believe they can’t win more of these games than they lose.
This is the year, if there ever was one, in which the Houston Texans have a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl title. Expectations are high, and rightly so. The success or failure of the 2012 Houston Texans is riding on the shoulders of veteran quarterback Matt Schaub.
Prediction: 8-8, 2nd place, AFC South
2011 Record: 9-7
Key Additions: G Steve Hutchinson, DE Kamerion Wimbley, WR Kendall Wright (draft), OLB Zach Brown (draft), DT Mike Martin (draft), CB Coty Sensabaugh (draft)
Key Departures: CB Cortland Finnegan, S Chris Hope, DT Jason Jones, DE William Hayes, OG Jake Scott
The million dollar question in Tennessee is, “Who’s going to start at quarterback?” Will it be Matt Hasselback, the dependable veteran who seems to do just enough? Or will it be Jake Locker, the exciting young quarterback that has many fans beaming with optimism? The question that all this quarterback controversy really boils down to is, “Do you want safe with limited upside and limited downside or risky with high upside and high downside?”.
You know what you’ll get with Hasselback. He’ll probably get you around 3,500 yards with 16-20 TD’s and 14-18 interceptions. Locker, on the other hand, is much more of a mystery. He’s no doubt the more exciting player, and his upside is tremendous. He’s super athletic and mobile, but he struggles immensely with accuracy issues and has a tendency to be off on his timing. He’s a bit of a loose cannon, but we all know the damage cannons can do when they hit their target.
My hunch is that Jake Locker is the starting quarterback in week 1 for Tennessee. With Hasselback starting, the Titans’ best case scenario is an 8-8 season. With Locker starting, Tennessee has an outside shot at a wild card berth in the AFC. Of course, the downside is much greater as well. If Locker were to struggle and turn the ball over consistently, Tennessee could wind up drafting in the top 10 in next year’s draft. But to avoid another boring, mediocre season, the reward seems to outweigh the risk.
If Locker does indeed take over as the starter, a bounce back season from Chris Johnson becomes that much more vital. Johnson, who seems to be somewhat of an enigma, is about as bipolar as a running back can be. One Sunday he’s busting off huge chunks of yardage and confounding defensive coordinators, and the next two or three Sundays he disappears. Chris Johnson has truly become a feast or famine running back. The Titans need him to do a lot more feasting in 2012 if they want to be competitive. Johnson scored just 4 TD’s in 2011 and had seven games in which he averaged less than 3 yards per carry. CJ broke the century mark in just 4 of his 16 games in 2011, as well.
Part of the blame lies with the offensive line. Veteran Pro-Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson was brought in via free agency to help solidify the line and bring in some veteran experience. Hutchinson should be a big upgrade over the departed Jake Scott in the running game. Despite the inconsistent run blocking, one of Tennessee’s strengths in 2011 was their pass protection. The Titans allowed just 24 sacks in 2011, the 2nd best mark in the NFL.
Defensively, the Titans were mediocre in 2011, finishing 18th in the NFL in total defense. Unfortunately, they failed to upgrade their talent level on this side of the ball in the offseason. Kameron Wimbley was brought in from the Raiders to help a pass rush that produced just 28 sacks in 2011. Only Tampa Bay recorded fewer sacks than the Titans last year. While Wimbley should help the pass rush a bit, the loss of defensive tackle Jason Jones will hurt it. Jones was one of the better penetrating defensive tackles in the NFL and his presence will be missed in Tennessee. Sen’Derrick Marks and Karl Klug, two talented defensive tackles, will have to step up their play and production to help fill the void left by Jones’ departure.
The biggest loss of the offseason for the Titans was that of cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Say what you want about his antics, but Finnegan was far and away the best player on this secondary in 2011. The Titans were unable to add a corner or a safety in free agency to help offset the loss of Finnegan. The Titans will now rely on Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner at the two starting cornerback positions. Only two cornerbacks were targeted more often than McCourty in 2011 and only one other cornerback allowed more receptions than McCourty’s 71. To his credit, McCourty allowed just one touchdown on the season and a 76.2 QB rating against. Verner, on the other hand, had a down year after a very good 2010 campaign. The Titans need Verner to return to form in 2012 or their secondary could be in big trouble. The safety position is another weak link on the Titans. Michael Griffin is simply not very good in pass coverage, and neither is Jordan Babineaux, who specializes in run support.
The Titans have their work cut out for them in 2012. There’s a very strong possibility that the Titans could start the season 0-4. They come out of the gates against the Patriots, Chargers, Lions, and Texans. The schedule does soften up a bit after the brutal start, but the Titans’ best case scenario is likely a wild card berth.
Prediction: 6-10, 3rd place, AFC South
2011 Record: 5-11
Key Additions: QB Chad Henne, WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, WR Justin Blackmon (draft), DE Andre Branch (draft), P Bryan Anger (draft)
Key Departures: DE Matt Roth, DE Aaron Kampman
The Jacksonville Jaguars are another AFC South team that experienced a shakeup in the front office in 2011. Not only is there a new head coach, but Shahid Khan took over as the new owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the middle of the 2011 season. Although the roster turnover was paltry compared to what has happened in Indianapolis this offseason, new head coach Mike Mularkey is bringing a different type of attitude to the Jaguars’ training facilities. The Jags have largely been overlooked, and the embarrassment of the passing game last year left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans and players. Sadly, the result of all the negative attention they received was that the dramatic improvement of the defense and the stellar performance of running back Maurice Jones-Drew were overlooked.
To put it plainly, this team is not as bad as they are perceived to be. The Jaguars finished the 2011 season as the 6th ranked defense in the NFL, 8th against the pass and 9th against the rush. Although the Jaguars recorded just 31 sacks, they also only allowed 21 pass TD’s and picked off 17 balls.
Jacksonville drafted Andre Branch out of Clemson to help boost the productivity of their pass rush, which was their only glaring weakness on defense in 2011. Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton combined to do a tremendous job of plugging the middle of the defense for the Jaguars. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, the Jaguars allowed just 3.4 yards per carry to opposing running backs who attempted a run up the middle (or, the “A Gap”). Only four teams defended the run up the middle better in 2011. If you’re going to run the ball against the Jaguars, you better run it somewhere other than up the middle.
One of the pleasant surprises for the Jaguars in 2011 was the success of their secondary despite Derek Cox missing 10 games due to injury and Rashean Mathis missing 7 games. Mathis’ skills are rapidly declining, as he allowed a 67% completion percentage to opposing QB’s to go along with a 106.1 QB rating, so Aaron Ross was brought in as a free agent for reinforcement. In the absence of Cox and Mathis last season, Will Middleton and the departed Drew Coleman filled in admirably, but the biggest addition to this secondary will be a healthy Derek Cox. Cox was simply impenetrable in the 6 games that he played in 2011, allowing just nine receptions and no touchdowns. If he can regain that form, the Jaguars’ secondary should be well on their way to a repeat performance in 2012.
Offensively, the Jaguars will rise or fall with the success of QB Blaine Gabbert. The Jaguars need Gabbert to step up and start playing like a 1st round pick, because he simply looked like he didn’t belong on the field in 2011. If Chad Henne winds up playing at any point during the 2012 season, that’s bad news for Jacksonville. Gabbert was historically bad in 2011, and if you watched any Jaguars games you may have even seen him duck a time or two as the pocket collapsed and opposing pass rushers closed in. Jaguar fans can only hope that is something he can shake, because the fear of being hit has the potential to derail this young quarterback’s career before it ever starts.
The additions of Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon at wide receiver should be a boon to the confidence of Gabbert. As much flack as I have admittedly given him for his play in 2011, he didn’t exactly have much to work with. In fact, the Jaguars had the worst group of wide receivers, collectively, that I’ve seen in years. Robinson gives Gabbert a deep threat to help stretch the field, while Blackmon has the potential to be a true #1 option at wide receiver. If the passing offense can improve ever so slightly, that will open things up even more for MJD and the Jaguars’ rushing attack.
The Jaguars’ offensive line allowed 34 sacks in 2011, and fans can thank right tackle Guy Whimper for 14 of them. That is an unacceptable number, and Whimper should be thankful he still has a job after such a pitiful performance. If Whimper can improve his play even to an “average” level, this Jacksonville offensive line will actually be quite good. They certainly did a solid job run blocking for the 2011 rushing champion, Maurice Jones-Drew.
Currently, all the talk in Jacksonville surrounds Jones-Drew’s holdout. It goes without saying that the Jags need MJD on the field in the worst way. Without Jones-Drew, the Jaguars may not score a touchdown in 2011. He is that critical to the efficiency of this offense as well as the development of Blaine Gabbert. Having MJD in the backfield has to be a comforting thing to a young quarterback who is still trying to figure things out. I expect to see MJD on the field for the start of week 1. These holdout situations always become big news, and they almost always end with the two sides coming to some sort of an agreement before the start of the season. The Jaguars need MJD and MJD needs football.
The Jaguars have a pretty manageable schedule in 2012. They played well within the AFC South in 2011, going 3-3 despite winning just 5 total games on the season. No matter how bad an offense may be, when you have a top 10 defense you have the potential to win any game on any given Sunday. With the added firepower on offense, I could easily see the Jaguars surprising everyone and reaching 8 wins this season. However, until the Maurice Jones-Drew contract situation works itself out, I have a hard time giving them more than 6. MJD missing valuable time in training camp is not helping the development of this offense whatsoever. This season is going to be all about finding out whether or not Blaine Gabbert can be the quarterback of the future for this team. 2012 is his tryout. If he fails to markedly improve, the Jaguars will be drafting in the top 10 come the 2013 draft and looking for their next signal caller.
Prediction: 4-12, 4th place, AFC South
2011 Record: 2-14
Key Additions: QB Drew Stanton, RB Mewelde Moore, WR Donnie Avery, OT Winston Justice, C Samson Satele, DE Cory Redding, SS Tom Zbikowski, QB Andrew Luck (draft), TE Coby Fleener (draft), TE Dwayne Allen (draft), WR T.Y. Hilton (draft), NT Josh Chapman (draft), RB Vick Ballard (draft)
Key Departures: QB Peyton Manning, TE Dallas Clark, RB Joseph Addai, WR Pierre Garcon, QB Dan Orlovsky, C Jeff Saturday, TE Jacob Tamme, G Ryan Diem, OLB Phillip Wheeler, ILB Ernie Sims, ILB Gary Brackett, CB Jacob Lacey, S Melvin Bullitt
One Look at the “Key Additions” and “Key Departures” should tell you all you need to know about the Indianapolis Colts’ 2012 offseason, and I didn’t even list the change at general manager and head coach. A new era has begun in Indianapolis as drastic change was brought forth as a result of the departure of Peyton Manning, the franchise’s cornerstone for the past fourteen years.
The Colts were about as dreadful as you could possibly be in 2011 without Peyton Manning under center. The 2011 version of the Colts’ squad was built to function with Manning at quarterback, so losing Manning was like taking the motor out of your car and expecting it to continue to run. Now that Manning is gone, a new system is being installed both on offense and defense under head coach Chuck Pagano. There will be plenty of bumps and bruises along the road, but there’s no way this team will be as bad as last year’s squad. Andrew Luck is the real deal, rookie or not.
Before we wet our pants out of too much excitement, though, we ought to temper our expectations a bit. I know that Andrew Luck led the Colts on three touchdown drives in his first preseason game, throwing for two himself, but that was 1) Against the Rams and 2) A preseason game. Not to take anything away from Luck’s performance on Sunday; it was indeed an impressive start for the new quarterback, but just don’t expect a string of games like that in the regular season. Peyton Manning threw for nearly 3,800 yards in his rookie season, but he also threw 28 interceptions. Andrew Luck is not superman.
I’ve seen the Colts projected to win as many as eight games which is simply a byproduct of the hype surrounding Luck. The last time I checked, Andrew Luck can’t line up at cornerback or linebacker. The Colts’ weakest link this season will be their defense. They lost four starters off of what was already a terrible defense squad from 2011 and they drafted just one defense player in the 2012 NFL Draft, nose tackle Josh Chapman. The emphasis this offseason was surrounding Andrew Luck with weapons and fixing the offense. Defense will likely be a point of emphasis the following offseason, but for the time being Colts fans are going to have to suffer through watching what is sure to be an abomination of a defensive unit on the field.
The Colts allowed opposing offenses to rush for 144 yards per game in 2011, and switching to a 3-4 defense isn’t going to help their cause out much. Middle linebacker Pat Angerer played fairly well in 2011, racking up 148 tackles, although the high number is large in part due to the fact that opponents attempted more rushes against the Colts than any other team in the league, 540 to be exact. When Antoine Bethea, a safety, racks up 139 tackles, and only two of them are for a loss, that tells you something about your run defense.
The secondary will be an even bigger problem. Jerraud Powers, the most experienced cornerback on the roster, allowed a 69% completion percentage on balls thrown his way, one of the worst marks in the NFL. Justin King and Cassius Vaughn are two of the other corners competing for playing time and there’s a reason you’ve never heard of them. Opposing quarterbacks had a 113.1 QB rating against King, who played with the Rams last season. King also allowed 6 touchdowns while intercepting just one ball. The Colts are going to have a very, very tough time stopping opponents through the air this season. There’s simply no talent to speak of in this secondary.
Offensively, there is a much rosier picture in Indy. Andrew Luck will once again draw fans to Lucas Oil Stadium and the Colts should have an exciting offensive product on the field. Indianapolis will focus heavily on two tight end sets (they didn’t use two of their first three picks on tight ends in the 2012 draft for fun) to allow Andrew Luck to slowly progress and stay comfortable. The two tight end sets should allow the Colts to do a better job of protecting their franchise quarterback. They’ll need to, because the offensive line does have some holes. Only one player on the Colts’ offensive line has more than three years’ experience, tackle Winston Justice. Justice, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles, started just one game in 2011.
The Colts will likely have a hard time establishing a very effective running game in 2012. They scored just 8 TD’s on the ground in 2011 and averaged only 4.2 yards per carry for the season. Donald Brown will likely be the starter, but his niche seems to be catching passes out of the backfield more so than running between the tackles. The Colts will hit some big plays in the passing game and should be able to move the chains with relative consistency just because Andrew Luck is already so polished. He’s an immense upgrade over Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky, and he’ll likely approach 4,000 yards passing in his rookie campaign.
Overall, there’s just too many holes on this roster. The Colts don’t really have a prayer of approaching 8 wins this season, although they’ll likely, at the worst, double their win total of two from 2011. Everyone knows this division belongs to the Houston Texans, but the folks in Houston better not get too comfortable with that idea. The Colts are coming, and with Andrew Luck in town, it may not take very long for them to catch up.