The AFC South is widely regarded not only as one of the weaker divisions in football, but also top-heavy, with the Texans the only potential legitimate postseason contender. Week One only further solidified this thinking, as Houston handled the lowly Dolphins with relative ease, but the division’s remaining three clubs all failed to get in the win column. While the Titans, Jaguars and Colts were all underdogs, there were troubling elements from all three contests.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the AFC South:
What we learned: New ORT Derek Newton passed his first test, keeping Dolphins pass-rushing specialist Cameron Wake at bay. Wake was held without a sack — Miami registered two sacks on the day, both coming from DT Randy Starks, who got the better of OLG Wade Smith. For Newton, who beat out veteran Rashad Butler in camp, it was an encouraging start from a pass-protection standpoint, but the entire offensive line will need to do a better job of getting a push in the running game moving forward (Houston gained a meager 2.4 yards per carry). It stands to reason that the more time Newton and new ORG Antoine Caldwell — if he can stay healthy — have to jell with the rest of the unit, the better the results will be.
What’s in store next: Houston travels to Jacksonville, where the reeling Jaguars await. The Texans outlasted the Jags in a physical contest at EverBank Field last November, one in which QB Matt Leinart was knocked out of the game with a broken collarbone. The focus for the Texans this week will be eliminating some of the sloppy play that they put forth early against Miami. Tackling was an issue at the outset, and head coach Gary Kubiak will be anxious to get the ground game ignited, too. Houston is a fairly healthy bunch right now, but Arian Foster’s knee will continue to mend, as well as OLB Brooks Reed’s hip.
What the heck? Casual NFL fans might not know the name Tim Jamison, but he’s beloved inside the Texans' organization. After a strong offseason, the fourth-year defensive end was rewarded with a contract extension this weekend, and he followed up the good vibes with a strong outing against the Dolphins, notching a sack and a pass defensed in limited duty. Playing behind J.J. Watt, who is quickly becoming a dominant force, Jamison won’t get a lot of snaps, but as long as his motor keeps running the way it has the past few months, he is going to find his way on the field, even if it is just to spell Watt.
What we learned: Indianapolis has a long way to go defensively. After a very strong start, in which they forced a three-and-out and got a pick-six from ILB Jerrell Freeman on the Bears' first two possessions, the wheels came off fast. Rush LB Dwight Freeney exited with an ankle injury and Bears QB Jay Cutler suddenly had all day to throw. He proceeded to catch fire, almost toying with the Colts' secondary as he spread the ball around to a number of targets. It wasn’t a good day for Colts CB Vontae Davis, who was victimized repeatedly, and there were at least two Cutler passes that should have been intercepted. Simply put: if head coach Chuck Pagano can’t find more ways to dial up pressure, it’s going to be a long year for the defense — and that is assuming it can stop the run, which it didn’t do consistently Sunday.
What’s in store next: The Colts will hold their breath as they await MRI results on Freeney’s ankle. They also must hope ORT Winston Justice’s head injury isn’t serious. It also will be a very interesting film study, as rookie QB Andrew Luck is forced to revisit his turnover-laden outing (three interceptions, one fumble). The good news is that the Colts did move the ball offensively. The bad news is that they turned it over before they could turn drives into points. The offensive line has to find a way to protect Luck better. Whether getting Joe Reitz back at left guard will make a difference remains to be seen, but Luck’s ability to shuffle and slide in the pocket was the only thing that saved him from being sacked twice as many times as he was (three).
What the heck? RB Donald Brown can be maddening. He spearheaded a scoring drive in the second quarter with a pair of impressive 18-yard runs, one of which resulted in a TD. However, he had two inexcusable drops with nothing but daylight in front of him. Those are killers for a young team and rookie QB that is having a hard enough time finding rhythm. Brown continues to flash — the Colts, however, need more consistency to help create balance offensively. The coaching staff continues to be high on Brown, but his powerful runs were completely negated by his horrible drops.
What we learned: An offseason almost exclusively dedicated to surrounding QB Blaine Gabbert with better resources to succeed paid off — at least for one week. Gabbert looked sharp, throwing for 260 yards and two touchdowns — including a gorgeous 39-yard scoring hookup with Cecil Shorts in the final minute. By all accounts, Gabbert has appeared more confident of late, and it is encouraging to see his season get off on the right foot. What’s more, he utilized several of his new weapons, with Laurent Robinson the leading receiver on the afternoon and top pick Justin Blackmon being targeted regularly despite a rather pedestrian debut.
What’s in store next: While the Jaguars’ offense took an encouraging step forward, the same can’t be said for the defense, the supposed strength of the club. There were several missed tackles and Vikings QB Christian Ponder was allowed to complete a pair of passes — a 26-yarder to Devin Aromashodu and six-yarder to Kyle Rudolph — in the final 20 seconds of regulation time to put the Vikings in position for a game-tying 55-yard field goal as time expired. Jacksonville was without two of its best defenders, SLB Daryl Smith and CB Derek Cox, but it surely stings to have such a solid offensive performance spoiled. It didn’t help that the Jags managed just two sacks and one hit on Ponder.
What the heck? Mel Tucker did a tremendous job getting the most out of his stop unit a season ago, but his decision to play such soft zone coverage on the Vikings’ final drive was puzzling. Jacksonville was in a cover-2 look on the 26-yard completion to Aromashodu. It is worth noting that this isn’t the first time Jacksonville has gone overly conservative toward the end of a game. It makes one wonder if the call would have been the same if the Jacksonville “D” was at full strength.
What we learned: All the verbal bouquets tossed at the feet of RB Chris Johnson this offseason didn’t parlay into a strong showing out of the gate. Johnson was a complete nonfactor in the run game, with a putrid four yards on 11 carries, though he did haul in a team-high six catches for 47 yards. And it’s not like he was facing the vaunted Ravens defense; the Patriots finished 17th against the run a season ago. It sounds like déjà vu, but Tennessee’s interior run blocking also left a lot to be desired, and the one positive running play the Titans managed (a 21-yard gain by QB Jake Locker) was negated because of a holding penalty on new OLG Steve Hutchinson.
What’s in store next: Tennessee has some soul searching to do early in the season after having no answers to stop New England’s passing game in Week One. The pass rush was inadequate — it generated one sack by Kamerion Wimbley — and Tom Brady, despite a broken nose suffered on the Wimbley sack, dissected the Titans’ secondary all afternoon. Next on the docket is a trip to San Diego, which has defeated the Titans eight consecutive games and is more than capable of picking a defense apart. Covering TE Antonio Gates is of particular concern, as Tennessee’s issues slowing down dynamic tight ends in 2011 clearly carried over into Week One.
From an injury standpoint, the Titans hope they dodged a few bullets. Jake Locker separated his non-throwing shoulder but is expected back next week. MLB Colin McCarthy suffered an ankle injury, then returned to the contest and left again. WR Nate Washington sustained a leg injury.
What the heck? Throughout most of the offseason, Tommie Campbell, not Ryan Mouton, worked as the team’s third corner, taking over for starter Alterraun Verner on the outside, with Verner covering the slot. But it was Mouton exclusively working in Tennessee’s nickel package — and doing a solid job clamping down on Patriots WR Wes Welker. It’s not as if Mouton didn’t have a good camp — he's only a year removed from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles — but it will be interesting to see if this is the CB rotation the Titans employ moving forward. Coordinator Jerry Gray has been known to take a flavor-of-the-week approach, so this could be a fluid situation.