It took rookie QB Andrew Luck two games to engineer his first fourth quarter game-winning drive. The Colts earned their first victory of the Luck era, edging the Vikings 23-20 after allowing Minnesota to erase a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit in the final five minutes. Luck was brilliant all afternoon, but particularly in marching the offense 45 yards on four plays in the waning seconds to set up PK Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning 53-yard field goal. Elsewhere in the AFC South, the Texans embarrassed the Jaguars and the Titans embarrassed themselves in San Diego.
What we learned: The Texans’ problems running the football in Week One appear to be an aberration. Houston toted the rock a franchise record 48 times for 217 yards and three TDs. Arian Foster surpassed the century mark on 28 carries; Ben Tate piled up 74 yards and a pair of TDs on just 12 carries. More importantly, there was a lot more room to operate for the Houston backs than there was in Week One, when the Texans’ offensive line appeared to be out of sync. OLG Wade Smith redeemed himself after arguably the worst game of his career and Houston made a short-handed but respectable Jacksonville “D” look really bad.
What’s in store next: Homecoming week for Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who returns to his old stomping grounds in Denver for a showdown with the Broncos and familiar foe, QB Peyton Manning. Frankly, the Texans don’t have a lot to correct this week following a thoroughly dominant effort in Jacksonville. However, they have been on the short end of the stick enough times against Manning, who has a 42-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 16-2 record in his career against the Texans. Thus, expect Houston to spend plenty of time this week working on a variety of coverages and preparing for Manning’s dizzying no-huddle attack. From an injury standpoint, the Texans remain in good shape. In fact, they already have had QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson all on the field at the same time more than they did all of 2011.
What the heck? The biggest story line of the offseason in Houston was what would happen with the right side of the offensive line following the free-agent departures of OG Mike Brisiel and OT Eric Winston. Derek Newton has held up well as Winston’s replacement, but it would appear Kubiak isn’t fully convinced about Antoine Caldwell, who stepped in for Brisiel. Enter C-OG Ben Jones, the club’s fourth-round pick this past April. It was believed that if Caldwell faltered, another rookie, Brandon Brooks, could be called upon. But Jones’ versatility has resulted in him dressing and Brooks being inactive in the first two weeks. Jones rotated with Caldwell every third series and appeared to hold up fairly well, making him a player to monitor moving forward.
What we learned: The Titans still can’t cover tight ends. Instead of capitalizing on Chargers TE Antonio Gates being inactive, Tennessee made his replacement, journeyman Donte Rosario, look like the Gates of old. Rosario, who hadn’t crossed the goal line since 2009, did so three times Sunday, with no Tennessee safety, cornerback or linebacker doing anything to stop him. There were major issues covering wideouts downfield, too, but the inability to slow tight ends is an issue that dates back to last season. Rookie Zach Brown, drafted in the second round because he has the size and speed to handle tight ends, made his first NFL start and collected 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, but he hardly solved this problem.
What’s in store next: The 0-2 Titans return home with little to hang their hat on and a hungry and high-powered Lions club heading to LP Field. Getting RB Chris Johnson off the snide is of the utmost importance, though if the “D” continues to fall behind early, there won’t be ample opportunities to do so. Tennessee’s defensive struggles in the first two weeks have been a result of the Patriots and Chargers spreading them out and moving the ball through the air — a major concern given the fact this is the Lions’ strength. Kenny Britt’s return from a one-game suspension was unmemorable, with Britt catching one ball for five yards on two targets. Continuing to get him back up to speed will be another major point of emphasis this week.
What the heck? The longer Johnson continues to struggle without Mike Munchak exploring other options, the more befuddling it becomes. Granted, the Titans fell behind early and were unable to establish the run, but why hasn't Jamie Harper, the more natural fit for Tennessee’s power blocking scheme, gotten more chances? Harper didn’t touch the ball Sunday, one week after getting only one carry against the Patriots. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the time has come to try throwing anything and everything at the wall and seeing if it sticks.
What we learned: QB Blaine Gabbert and the passing offense have a long way to go before we can say the struggles in 2011 are a thing of the past. On Sunday, we saw Gabbert revert back to his rookie ways, clearly affected by Houston’s relentless pass rush and unable to go through his progressions and find open receivers. In Gabbert’s defense, his receivers did very little to help him and the coaching staff was far too conservative and unwilling to try and test Houston downfield. Rookie WR Justin Blackmon was a nonfactor (zero catches on four targets), one week after making a minimal impact in his first NFL start.
What’s in store next: First and foremost, we wait and see the status of Gabbert, who didn’t finish the game after reportedly suffering toe and hamstring injuries. There will be folks who call for Chad Henne to get a shot after he came in looking sharp and decisive late in the fourth quarter, but it is clearly Gabbert’s job to lose, despite his rocky effort. Beyond Gabbert, the Jaguars desperately need CB Derek Cox and SLB Daryl Smith to return, as well as starting OLG Eben Britton and ORT Cameron Bradfield — all four players were inactive in Week Two. Bradfield’s replacement, Guy Whimper, remains a huge liability. Head coach Mike Mularkey must find a way to quickly restore the confidence on offense and somehow get his troops to pick up where they left off in Week One and put this disastrous effort behind them.
What the heck? Though rookie DRE Andre Branch has yet to record his first sack, he has shown flashes of being a productive player in his first two games. However, Branch made a massive rookie mistake against the Texans, jumping offside on a critical 3rd-and-7 early in the second half when the Jaguars had appeared to get off the field, trailing 17-7. Instead, Texans RB Arian Foster picked up three yards on 3rd-and-2, and the Texans marched 80 yards on 11 plays to score a TD, ending this one for all intents and purposes. Branch is in a tough spot, forced to learn on the fly because of Jacksonville’s injuries at defensive end and their need for more pass rush, but he has to learn from this one.
What we learned: Like his predecessor, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck is talented and savvy enough to overcome poor offensive line play. The Colts were a M.A.S.H. unit up front by game’s end, with C Samson Satele and ORG Mike McGlynn suffering injuries. Luck was under duress all afternoon, yet he adeptly avoided pressure by shuffling and sliding up in the pocket and continuing to survey the field. Luck continued his mastery in the two-minute drill, connecting on all three passes on the final drive, including a pair of 20-yard strikes to Donnie Avery and Reggie Wayne, respectively. The final numbers for Luck — 20-for-31 for 224 yards, two TDs and no interceptions — are impressive, but watching him operate and make players around him better is even more impressive.
What’s in store next: The Colts host the reeling Jaguars, who always seem to play Indianapolis tough. Chuck Pagano’s modus operandi, stuffing the run and bringing heat from different parts of the field, will be put to test against a Jacksonville offense that will look to get Maurice Jones-Drew involved early and often in order to make QB Blaine Gabbert as comfortable as possible. Of course, the Colts, like the Texans, will look to do just the opposite, flustering Gabbert and forcing him to chuck and duck or make errant throws like he did Sunday. Getting healthy up front on offense and hopefully welcoming back OLB Dwight Freeney and WR Austin Collie (who both were inactive in Week Two) would be nice.
What the heck? It’s a good thing style points don’t matter in the NFL, because the Colts did everything they could to lose the game. Bruce Arians became far too conservative with a lead, and Luck, for as brilliantly as he played, made two glaring mistakes in the fourth quarter. The first was taking a 22-yard sack with three minutes remaining and his team clinging to a seven-point lead. Luck is highly athletic and you love to see him try and make a play, but there comes a time when cutting your losses is the right move and doing so without jeopardizing so much field position at such a critical juncture was the right move. The second mistake came on the Colts’ final drive. With 13 seconds remaining, Luck clocked the ball, only to later realize that the clock was already stopped because of an offside penalty on the previous play. That one is more on head coach Chuck Pagano than Luck.