AFC South preview (cont.)
What the Titans do best: Run the football
There's no question that the Titans are at their best when Chris Johnson is toting the rock. That's why the team lavished him with a four-year, $53.5 million extension on Thursday. (Albeit after Johnson held out for more than a month.) Still, Johnson won't be able to hit the ground running as he did when he held out in '10. This season, Johnson rejoins a Titans team that is switching to a New York Giants-inspired offense, and the scheme is full of new verbiage and subtle nuances. That said, it remains a system designed on featuring him every which way possible. Don't be shocked if Johnson approaches his 2009 form once he gets up to speed.
What the Titans must improve: Throwing the football
Matt Hasselbeck is everything that Vince Young is not: Fluid in his mechanics, precise in his throws and convincing in a leadership role. Hasselbeck is also not terribly mobile, but that's hardly a liability in Tennessee. Since 1997, the Titans have allowed the second-fewest sacks, with 28.3 per season. When Hasselbeck has time to find his targets, he can pick defenses apart.
Which Titan needs to step up: Linebacker Akeem Ayers
The 6-foot-2, 254-pound UCLA product is not the speediest linebacker. (He clocks in the 4.8 40 range, which partly explains why he fell to the 39th overall pick.) But his size gives the Titans a defensive end-type body who can tie up blockers in their tweaked 4-3 scheme. With the Titans renewed emphasis on stopping the run -- they ranked 20th in yards allowed, with 115.7 per game -- Ayers, who amassed 183 tackles (29½ of them for losses) and 14 sacks in three seasons at UCLA, will have to be on his game for the Titans D to rebound. One thing first-year coordinator Jerry Gray isn't worried about is whether Ayers will be able to hold his own physically. "We know guys aren't going to try to run over him, because most guys aren't as strong as he is," Gray says. "What he's got to do is get mentally prepared because offenses are going to try to trick him."
Predicted record: 8-8
Eight wins is a lot to ask of a team that's overhauling both its offensive and defensive schemes, but the roster continuity alone is reason enough to believe. The most significant change happened at the area of most need -- quarterback -- and now that position is solidified with Hasselbeck and rookie Jake Locker.
What the Jaguars do best: Score in the red zone
The Jaguars tied for just 21st in scoring drives into the red zone, but when they got inside the 20 they scored 63 percent of the time, the league's third-highest mark. Expect that number to go up as tight end Marcedes Lewis (who went to his first Pro Bowl last year) continues to emerge as a lethal target and offensive complement to do-it-all back Maurice Jones-Drew.
What the Jaguars must improve: Pass defense
The Jaguars were terrible in coverage last year, allowing a whopping 250.2 yards per game. (Good for fifth-worst.) Much of that is byproduct of the defense's struggles to generate a strong pass rush and a secondary that mostly relied on Pro Bowl cornerback Rashean Mathis to make every play. The free agent acquisitions of nickel cornerback Drew Coleman and safety Dawan Landry should take a lot of the pressure off of Mathis.
Which Jaguar needs to step up: Defensive end Matt Roth
Once the heir apparent of Jason Taylor in Miami, Roth struggled to live up to expectations as a Dolphin and Brown. He's been a victim of injuries and 3-4 systems that often placed him at linebacker instead of on the line, his preferred position. Still, he's shown flashes of dominance and that little bit could go a long way toward enhancing fellow end Aaron Kampman, who is coming off of his second reconstructive knee surgery in as many seasons. To save on Kampman's wear and tear, the Jaguars will deploy him more situationally in hopes that he becomes more effective with fewer snaps.
Predicted record: 7-9
It's easy to forget that this team was playing for the division title deep into last season. Though the Jaguars play the sixth-toughest schedule in '11, there are some victories to be had in an out-of-division slate that includes games at Carolina, against Cincinnati and at Cleveland. Inside the division, though, the Jaguars will have their work cut out for them -- especially if David Garrard's preseason back problems persist and the team has to turn to rookie Blaine Gabbert.