During the 2011 offseason, the Houston Texans may have made the best acquisition in the entire league, Wade Phillips. In his first season as defensive coordinator, Phillips’ defense ranked fourth in points allowed and second in yards allowed. What’s more, he did it without Mario Williams for much of the season, as his best defensive player heading into the season missed the final 11 games of the regular season and the all of the postseason after tearing a pectoral muscle while recording a sack. So, what do we expect in 2012? For starters, the free-agency period wasn’t as kind to the Texans — on paper. Williams was signed to a monster contract by the Bills, while two starting offensive linemen headed west, tackle Eric Winston going to the Chiefs, and guard Mike Brisiel going to the Raiders. William’s loss will be felt, but they proved they could win without him last year, with second-year rush specialist Brooks Reed collecting six sacks in 11 starts in 2011. In the draft, they selected defensive end Whitney Mercilus with the 26th overall pick, and he had 3.5 sacks in the preseason. Another defensive rookie to keep an eye on is tackle Jared Crick, the Texans’ fourth-round pick out of Nebraska. When healthy, he may remind fans a lot of J.J. Watt (he of the 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks as a rookie under Phillips in 2011).
Offensively, running back Arian Foster received his big contract, which will bring with it big expectations. But will his production dip behind those two new starting linemen? Although it is preseason, it hasn’t proved to be as big of challenge as I anticipated, with Foster gaining 89 yards and scoring once on 19 preseason carries. That 4.7 average is nearly .3 yards better than his regular-season average in 2011.
For the first time in franchise history, the Texans will enter the season as the clear-cut divisional favorite. And with games against the Dolphins and Jaguars to kick off their season, they should be off to a great start. They will also enjoy a powder-puff ending to the season as they will host the Colts and Vikings before traveling to back to the Colts in Week 17. All signs point to another playoff run in Houston.
I’ve already mentioned the impact of Phillips, and in his second year, the defense should be just as good if not better than it was in 2011. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is also returning for his third season and will be happy to have Matt Schaub back under center after closing out last year with third-string and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates in the playoffs. Of course, if Schaub does go down again, it won’t hurt having a guy who led the team to a playoff win ready to go, either.
Prediction: 11-5, first in the AFC South.
The Titans are turning to second-year quarterback Jake Locker to be their starter this season. This move speaks more to a desire to rebuild than it does the abilities of Matt Hasselbeck, but the Titans can’t afford to delay finding out what they have in Locker any longer. If the preseason is any indication, he is exactly what the scouts thought he was coming out of Washington, when the biggest concern was his accuracy. He had never completed more than 59 percent of his passes during a season for the Huskies, and those concerns remain very legitimate. Locker finished the preseason completing 53.8 percent of his passes, including a miserable Week 2 showing (4 of 11 for just 21 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against Tampa Bay). Even if running back Chris Johnson can have a bounce-back season, Locker will need to improve his accuracy for this team to become a true playoff contender.
Defensively the Titans allowed the eighth-fewest points in the NFL in 2011, but gave up chunks of yardage and were second-to-last in sacks. They added Kamerion Wimbley to assist as a pass rusher off the edge, and in Week 3 of the preseason against the Cardinals he made his presence known with two early sacks. It can’t be all about getting after the quarterback though, in a division with running backs like Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew (should he end his holdout), the Titans will need to be tough in the middle of the line, as well. They lost Jason Jones via free agency and failed to acquire anyone to fill the void.
The Titans have a brutal first six games and could very easily start the season at 2-4 or worse. There is light at the end of the tunnel though — after Week 6, Tennessee will face only two 2011 playoff teams: the Texans and the Packers.
One thing the Titans have is stability on the coaching staff, making only one coaching change this offseason — Brett Maxie, the Cowboys secondary coach in 2011, will assume the same role for the Titans this season.
During recent radio interviews, I have referred to the Colts as this year’s expansion team. And while I understand they were able to keep such players as Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, let’s be honest . . . this team is in complete rebuilding mode. That rebuilding process obviously starts behind center as Andrew Luck replaces the face of the franchise, Peyton Manning. Luck hasn’t disappointed so far this preseason. While his stats are somewhat pedestrian, he completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each game and has showed the poise of an experienced veteran. I was particularly impressed with how he bounced back in the second game against the Steelers after starting with two early interceptions to right the ship with a 16-of-25 performance including a rushing touchdown. While fans and media will continuously compare Luck to Manning, just like Aaron Rodgers was compared to Brett Favre when the legend moved to New York and then Minnesota, it will be the sole focus of the Colts to get better as a team. And that may prove to be more difficult on defense.
Even with Mathis and Freeney, the defense ranked in the back third of almost every statistic in 2011, including fifth-worst in points allowed and third-worst in forcing turnovers. With the first four picks in the draft going to the offensive side of the ball, it will fall squarely on the shoulders of new head coach and defensive specialist Chuck Pagano to fix this defense schematically rather than upgrade the individual components (with the exception of the recently acquired cornerback Vontae Davis from the Dolphins). Davis may help the secondary, but it is the ability to stop the run that has historically plagued the Colts. And the results thus far? The Colts gave up 449 yards on the ground in four preseason games. That will need to be addressed with six games against Foster, Johnson, and most likely, MJD looming.
While the Texans will benefit from playing the Colts two out of the final three games, the Colts will suffer from it. Sandwich a game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead between them and that makes a tough closeout to the season. To make things worse, the Colts will play the Bears, Packers, Patriots, and Lions — four potential top-five offenses in 2012.
In his final weeks in Indianapolis, Manning famously said that he could walk down the halls of Colts’ headquarters and not recognize a single person in the building. It’s a brand new regime in Indianapolis with Ryan Grigson in as first-year GM and Pagano a rookie head coach. Pagano did well to surround himself with longtime coordinators on both sides of the ball with Bruce Arians on offense and Greg Manusky on defense.
Prediction: 6-10, third in the AFC South.
Much of the talk in Jacksonville this offseason has been the holdout of MJD, but this team’s success is even more dependent on the maturation of second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Don’t get me wrong: MJD is the key ingredient to this offense. But even with his league-leading 1,606 rushing yards last season the Jaguars still finished with a 5-11 record. To assist in Gabbert’s development, Jacksonville brought in veteran wide receiver Laurent Robinson and also drafted Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft. Blackmon and Robinson will allow Mike Thomas to play a more comfortable slot role while those two man the X and Z positions. Gabbert finished the preseason with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, compiling a 100.6 rating. His best effort came against the Saints in which he completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
Surprisingly, the Jaguars defense was top 10 in both rushing and passing last season, and 11th in scoring defense. The major void was their inability to rush the passer, to which they addressed in the second round of the draft with defensive end Andre Branch. In 14 games at Clemson last season, Branch finished with 10.5 sacks and the Jaguars could use every one on them and more this season.
The Jaguars would be happy to enter their Week 6 bye with a winning record. To do so, they would need to win their season opener against the Vikings, beat the Colts in Week 3 and then steal a win from the Texans, Bengals or Bears in one of the remaining three. If they can do that, they could even compete with the Titans as the second-best team in the division, but don’t hold your breath.
After filling in as interim head coach in 2011, Mel Tucker returns as defensive coordinator. But it will be Mike Mularkey’s first season as head coach in Jacksonville. Mularkey brought longtime coordinator Bob Bratkowski with him from Atlanta and he will need to conjure all of his 14 seasons as a play caller in the NFL to turn around an offense that was dead last in yards in 2011.