With only two divisions left to look at, David Syvertsen gives us his breakdown of the glaring holes on each team.
Targets on the Outside
Whether or not the Titans are able to repeat their 2008 performance will be largely dependent upon passing game. Yes, their offense is based on the thunder and lightning rushing attack behind one of the best group of blockers in the game, but will the 36 year old signal caller Kerry Collins be able to stay on a steady, efficient track? The talent was added to the wide receiver core via free agency with deep threat Nate Washington and also through the draft in Kenny Britt. However Washington was at his best in Pittsburgh when the attention was on the Steelers ground attack, Santonio Holmes, and Hines Ward. Now that he is in a featured role, will he be able to sneak behind the secondary and get downfield? Behind him and Britt, the Titans lack weapons on the outside to properly compliment their athletic tight ends and strong running game. The defense may struggle to perform at the same level as it did in 2008 considering the loss of their coordinator and best player, thus the style of offense played may have to feature a bigger dependence on the passing game.
Outside Pass Rush
The loss of the most dominant defensive lineman in football is going to obviously hamper the possibility the Titans’ defense to perform at a top ten level. They ranked number five in the league in teams sacks with 44 in 2008, eight of whoch came from the departed Albert Haynesworth. Even though there was enough balance numbers wise when it came to the sack totals, the amount of attention that can now be diverted to the rest of the pass rushers is going to be amped up. There is not a talent along that front that makes an offense scared. Jacob Ford and Lawrence Vicerskon are two young players with potential, but potential does not mean a thing in this league when it comes to gameplanning. It is all about performance and without Haynesworth in the middle, those potentials need to turn into performers. Veterans Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse are nice role players but many will come to grasp with just how average they are without Haynesworth swaolling double and triople teams across the front. That defense has some nice talent in the secondary that is capable of creating coverage sack opportunities but if there is no pressure off the edge, a good quarterback will wait that extra second or two and wait for the inevitable opening in the secondary.
Marvin Harrison Replacement
While the Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison connection was one of the best, if not the best in thehistory of the game, it was time to show #88 the door. He lost the quick acceleration that allowed him to be as reliable a route runner as there was in the game and he has always been a guy that could be bulled by strong press corners. The Colts have two fine targets in Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez, but with the amount of three and four receiver sets they use, there needs to be a grooming process in the works for a starting caliber pass catcher. Pierre Garcon is the only high ceiling receiver that could produce within that offense but competition will be needed as the final stretch of Peyton Manning’s career approaches. Despite the tandem of Donald Brown and Josheph Addai, the Colts will remain a pass-first and often offense for the next four to five years. Depth needs to be added at the position and if Gonzalez proves to be nothing more than a strong slot receiver, the Colts will be searching for a starter.
A Presence in the Middle
While the Colts defense is high on gambling with their slanting scheme up front and filling back seven defenders, the lack of a true presence at middle linebacker seems to hurt this unit every year. Gary Brackett is a great story and he always seems to surprise with his level of play at certain points ina season. However when you look at the big picture and evaluate him on a week-to-week basis, it is easy to find that he is one of the consistent contributors to a lackluster run defense. While the Colts can obviously succeed with him calling the shots from the middle, their all or nothing defense would greatly benefit from a run defender that can make up for the lackluster talent in the trenches.
A Compliment to Steve Slaton
The Texans are on the brink of legitimate contention because of their strong performance by the team’s front office. They have used trades ,the draft, and free agency to build their roster in an economic sense that gives them the most out of every dollar they spend. The one area of this offense that is lacking however is the most vital to their potential. While Steve Slaton was a major surprise in 2008 with his near 1,300 yard season, he may not be the kind of back that can carry the ball 25+ times week in and week out. He needs a compliment and that compliment is not on the current roster. The Texans need to control the ball if they plan on taking over the AFC South and Slaton cannot do it by himself.
Ballhawk in the Middle
There were only five teams that finished the season with less interceptions than the Texans in 2008. While they tried to add pieces to the middle of their secondary throughout the offseason, the team’s depth chart at the position is less than inspiring especially considering the who the Texans are trying to dethrone in the division. Starting strong safety Nick Ferguson has not had an interception since 2007 and the player next to him, Eugene Wilson, is at his best when used as a nickel or dime package hybrid defensive back. With the defensive line that is being built in Houston, teams will be looking to get rid of the ball quickly, which will open up opportunities for a forced turnover. With the importance that NFL coaches put on winning that turnover battle, one has to think these safeties will be need to be upgraded as soon as possible.
Weapons in the Passing Game
Gone are the days of a powerful rushing attack that was a simple yet bruising, punishing scheme that opposing defenses had to match up against. Maurice Jones Drew is still there and while he needs to prove he is capable of being the go to back, he is fully capab;e of bringing back their running game to a level of respectability. The team brought in veteran sure handed Torry Holt but he is no longer the number one receiver that demands double teams. He struggles to get behind the secondary and with that in mind, opposing defenses will be able to control the intermediate lanes which David Garrard is most comfortable throwing in. Marcedes Lewis and Mike Walker are two young guns with size and speed but again, they do not propose matchup problems. With the lack of that top tier running game, Garrard needs weapons that can keep safeties honest and linebackers chasing. Jack Del Rio boosted the edges of his offensive line with rookies Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton with the hope that Garrard will have more time to scan and disperse. However without the proper weapons, he is a pedestrian passer that has a severe cap on how productive he can be.
Just like the days of Jacksonville controlling the game with their own running game being a thing of the past, the Jaguars run defense is not half of what it used to be. When John Henderson and Marcus Stroud were manning the middle of that defense, teams were simply afraid. With Stroud in Buffalo, Henderson realized how vital it was to have that kind of presence next to him. There are promising youngsters on each end in Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey but the talent next to him inside is not competitive against the league’s stronger offensive lines. There are pieces that the Jaguars can use in a rotational system, but that every down player that can wreck havoc is not there. Henderson still has a couple more years of potential dominance in him if the right acquisition can be made by the front office.