2010 Division Preview: AFC South
If Colts meet their self-imposed goals in the run game, they'll be hard to to stop
Titans need to develop a passing game to complement Chris Johnson
Brian Cushing's suspension could leave the Texans playing catch up all season
This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the NFC South and AFC South, following up Tuesday's breakdowns of the AFC East and NFC East. The AFC North and NFC North follow Thursday and the AFC West and NFC West conclude things Friday.
Indianapolis' vise grip on the South has made it nearly impossible for any other team to rise to the top. There's no reason to think the Colts won't claim another division crown at season's end, but their three rivals won't be making it an easy coronation.
Tennessee appears poised to emerge as Indy's strongest challenger, as it has the talent to play the kind of keepaway, clock-control game to protect leads and the quick-strike ability to come from behind. The Texans have a big-play offense to rival the Colts, but the loss of linebacker Brian Cushing for the first four games of the season could have them playing catch-up the rest of the season. As for the Jaguars, they don't stand a chance if they can't dial up the pressure in the pocket.
What the Colts do best: Throw the football.
Indy is all about the passing game. It has maybe the best to ever sling it (Peyton Manning) running the show, and he'll have perhaps the league's deepest and most talented corps of receivers at his disposal. One target hoping to be prominent on his radar is Anthony Gonzalez. The fourth-year wideout seemed poised to fill Marvin Harrison's cleats on the right side of the formation before a knee injury in the 2009 season opener ended his year. Now fully recovered, he'll compete for passes alongside younger teammates Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie, who combined for 1,441 yards and 11 touchdowns in '09.
What the Colts need to improve: Run game.
If Indy had a weakness, it was running the football. The Colts finished dead last in that category in '09, averaging 80.9 per game. But that's to be expected given that Indy also logged the second-fewest attempts (366). Despite the troubled ground game, Indy still maintained a dangerous play-action passing attack, and the Colts proved they could run the ball in the clutch. Feature back Joseph Addai logged his highest yards-per-carry averages in postseason games against the Jets (5.0) and Saints (5.9). The Colts have set a goal of averaging at least one yard more per carry than they did last year, when they averaged 3.5. If they make good on that, look out.
Which Colt needs to step up: Left tackle Tony Ugoh.
The Colts are entering Year Four of the Tony Ugoh experiment; they continue to hold out hope he'll become a player for them. Indy drafted the 6-foot-5, 301-pound Ugoh as the left tackle to replace the virtually indomitable Tarik Glenn, but so far Ugoh has struggled. After an especially abysmal '08 that saw him give up three sacks and get whistled for six penalties -- four of them false starts, one of them for holding -- Ugoh was benched in favor of fifth-year pro Charlie Johnson, who has done a measurably better job of protecting Manning's blind side. This year the Colts are giving Ugoh another shot to prove himself at guard. If he can't find a way to stand out more positively -- like by busting a few holes open for Addai -- Ugoh's days in Indy could be numbered.
Predicted record: 13-3.
The Colts draw another tough slate in '10, but there's no reason to think that they won't overcome it. How they fare in a late four-game stretch at the Patriots (Nov. 21), against the Chargers (Nov. 28), against the Cowboys (Dec. 5) and at the Titans (Dec. 9) could determine whether they'll have a first-round bye.
What the Titans do best: Unleash Chris Johnson.
The Titans are a run-first football team. They'd be foolish not to be considering the once-in-a-generation talent they have in their backfield. Simply put: Chris Johnson was the Titans offense in '09. No other Titan caught as many passes (50) or amassed as many yards (2,509).
This year Johnson has set a goal of hitting the 2,500-yard rushing mark. Though the odds against him are steep -- no back in NFL history has reached the 2,000-yard mark in consecutive years -- the Titans will certainly give him the opportunity. Tennessee rode Eddie George for eight years until his wheels fell off. Johnson will be in for just as much work, if not more.
What the Titans need to improve: Developing a passing game.
Where Tennessee's ground game was stellar, its passing game was simply so-so. The standard didn't have to be high, what with Johnson making all the plays. But with opposing coordinators calibrating their game plans toward slowing him down, Tennessee will have to develop a stronger passing game to beat all of those eight-man fronts on the horizon. They'll look to second-year man Kenny Britt, who had a team-leading 701 receiving yards in '09. They can also turn to Nate Washington and Lavelle Hawkins. What's in question is their focus. The Titans struggled mightily with dropped passes last year. A repeat in '10 might be too much for Johnson to mitigate alone.
Which Titan needs to step up: Defensive tackle Jovan Haye.
Last spring, when retaining the services of All-Pro space eater Albert Haynesworth proved too pricey for the Titans, the team let him walk to the Redskins and instead signed free agent Haye, late of Tampa Bay. At four years and $16.2 million, Haye seemed like a steal -- especially when compared to the seven-year, $100 million deal Haynesworth signed in Washington, and when you consider that in 2007 Haye equaled Haynesworth in sacks (six) and bettered him in tackles (68 to 40). But Haye wasn't nearly as explosive in '09, registering his lowest tackle (32) and sack (1/2) totals since he became a fulltime starter in '07. To hear Haye tell it, his production problems weren't as much a function of will as they were weight. He put on 20-25 pounds, believing it would help fill Haynesworth's massive void. Now down to 277 pounds, Haye won't have anything holding him back from making plays. But if he falters again, he could be taking a load off on the bench.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Titans play one of the league's most difficult schedules -- 2010 opponents had a combined .547 win percentage in 2009 -- but only have five playoff teams to reckon with. As long as they take care of business in games against the AFC West and continue to hold their own in the South, the Titans should be in the mix for a playoff spot.
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