AFC South preview (cont.)
What the Texans do best: Pass first, ask questions later.
The Texans' pass-heavy approach is partly why they had the league's best offense in '09, rolling up an average of 290.9 yards. The rest of the plaudits should go to the personnel. The offensive line, long an area of vulnerability, has emerged as one of the league's more impregnable over the past couple years. Quarterback Matt Schaub, who suffered his aches and pains for the first time in his career, lasted a career-high 15 starts as a result -- long enough to lead his team to its first winning record.
Pro Bowlers Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels not only make the big plays, but also all the little ones that create opportunities for guys farther down the depth chart, such as Jacoby Jones and David Anderson. Though the unit loses its playcaller and chief strategist in coordinator Kyle Shanahan -- who left Space City to reunite with his father, Mike, in D.C. -- it won't see much of a drop-off under Rick Dennison, who worked with coach Gary Kubiak in Denver under Mike Shanahan from 2001 to '05.
What the Texans need to improve: Securing the football.
The Texans flashed a lot of self-destructive tendencies in '09, but none was worse than their penchant for fumbling -- and no ballcarrier was a more frequent offender than Steve Slaton. After Slaton coughed up the ball a team-high seven times last year, the Texans put the pill in the more secure arms of Arian Foster. Though Foster performed well in two season-ending starts last year -- busting out for 216 yards and two touchdowns -- he has flashed his own issues holding onto the football in the preseason. The Texans hope he has the problem licked by their season opener against Indy on Sept. 12. A 17th loss to their division nemesis would only make their road to their first playoff berth that much harder.
Which Texan needs to step up: Linebacker Xavier Adibi.
The loss of linebacker Brian Cushing to a four-week suspension for violating the league's substance policy is a staggering blow. Kubiak has been coy about who might replace the Defensive Rookie of the Year, but one of the more promising candidates is third-year man Xavier Adibi. The 6-2, 242-pound Virginia Tech product made only three tackles in mostly special teams appearances last year, but was markedly more productive on defense the year before, racking up 34 tackles and recovering a fumble in seven games. If he can stay healthy -- something he's labored to do in camp -- and approach his '07 levels of production through the first quarter of the season, then the Texans should at least tread water while Cushing is away.
Predicted record: 8-8.
Houston also plays a tough schedule, which includes seven against playoff teams. An improvement on last year's 1-5 division finish could pave a path to the postseason, but that's if they don't stumble in playoff-like games against the NFC East -- which, frankly, I just don't see happening.
What the Jags do well: Follow MJD's lead.
You know how football people talk about offenses having an identity? Well, the Jaguars' couldn't be more clear-cut: he is 5-7, 208 pounds and can handle just about anything you throw at him. Just as the Titans can only go as far as Chris Johnson can carry them, the same is true for the Jaguars and Maurice Jones-Drew. To no one's surprise, he dazzled in his first year as the team's feature back. His 312 carries, 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns in '09 were all career highs. The Jaguars do a lot of things poorly, but feeding Jones-Drew is not one of them. Coach Jack Del Rio says the back's workload will increase this year. Smart move.
What the Jags need to improve: Rushing the passer.
The Jags pass rush was abysmal. The 14 sacks they posted in '09 was not only the low for the league, but also for the franchise. In a bid to get better, the Jaguars went tackle heavy in the draft -- selecting Cal's Tyson Alualu in the first round and Louisiana Tech's D'Anthony Smith in the second -- traded for heat-seeking linebacker Kirk Morrison and ponied up big money for Packers free agent defensive end Aaron Kampman, who is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. If Kampman can bounce back and Alualu proves as good as advertised (Smith suffered a season-ending injury in the offseason), the Jaguars' pass rush should grow some teeth. Still, it's doubtful they'll be sharp enough to scare their pass-happy rivals in Indianapolis and Houston.
Which Jag needs to step up: Quarterback David Garrard.
Would you believe Garrard makes more money than Tom Brady? The Jags quarterback scored a boffo extension after an '07 season that saw him complete 64 percent of his passes, throw for 2,509 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to finishing with the NFL's third-highest passer rating (102.2). Garrard has surpassed 3,000 yards passing in the two years since, but an increased interception count (from three in '07 to 13 in '08 to 10 in '09) has kept his passer rating barely hovering above 80. Simply put: he needs to cut down on the turnovers. Rangy targets like 6-6 tight end Marcedes Lewis and 6-2 receiver Mike Sims-Walker will provide Garrard plenty of room for error, but they can only go so far. It's on Garrard to deliver the ball on the money -- or risk seeing a lot less of it in the future.
Predicted record: 7-9.
With so many new pieces on defense and still so many questions about the offense, it's tough to see the Jaguars being much better than they were last year. What's more, the schedule makers didn't do them any favors, sticking them with the fifth-toughest slate. Better luck next year.