2009 NFL Preview: AFC South

AFC SouthLets take a look at this years 2009 AFC South Previews and Predicitons.

Indianapolis Colts

Offseason: A new head coach, offensive and defensive co-ordinator would normally make a team wince, but the smartest piece of that offense is still lining up under center and fresh blood was probably needed to invigorate the defensive side of the football meaning I expect Indianapolis’ coaching transition to be smoother than most. Marvin Harrison is the obvious postseason departure, but he wouldn’t have been let go if the Colts didn’t believe Anthony Gonzalez could fill the void. Rookie tailback Donald Brown is uncomfortably close for Joseph Addai’s likings to getting a major share in the running duties, and if Addai can’t stay healthy (he started just 12 games in 2008) Brown will make for a talented starter.

Offense: Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, Dallas Clark. You know how Indianapolis are going to setup but you probably won’t stop them, and despite it taking Peyton Manning a good 8 games to fully recover from his torn Labrum, injury free this is easily a top three offense in the league. Reggie Wayne’s 1100 yard 6TD 2008 effort was a little off colour for a receiver who averaged 1400 yards and 9.5TDs the previous 2 seasons, but Anthony Gonzalez entering his 3rd year looks prime for a breakout season opposite Wayne, alleviating the pressure placed on the Pro Bowl stalwart. A healthy Addai and rookie Brown should elevate the Colts from their position as the 31st ranked run offense.

Defense: This whole defense hinges on Bob Sanders’ health, which isn’t great when you consider that the playmaking safety has participated in just 53% of Indianapolis’ regular season contests since his rookie year. Former USC Trojan Fili Moala should help the interior of that Colts’ line against the run, but Sanders’ ability to make plays at the line of scrimmage is pivotal if the Colts want to stop the run consistently and preserve one of the better secondaries in the league alongside the now paid Kelvin Hayden.

Key Games: Week 10 they host the Patriots, but outside of the division they have little to fear. Inside the AFC South they’ll do the double over the Jags, but can expect tough games in Houston and Tennessee.

Predicted Record: 13-3

Houston Texans

Offseason: Not too much to report really. Cato June will add experience to a young front seven, whilst DE/OLB Connor Barwin will hope to translate outstanding measurables into NFL sacks. Brian Cushing was a smart addition at SAM linebacker, especially since a suitable candidate at safety didn’t really emerge for them to take at the 15 slot. Rookie Antoine Caldwell can start at guard or center week 1.

Offense: I’m sticking my neck out: 5 years after their inception, Houston will be an AFC wildcard representative. If they are going to make the playoffs they’ll have to do it like men and beat the Titans since Baltimore have the other slot locked up, but I think they have a real shot. They have a franchise QB when healthy, a quality running back, one of the most talented TEs in the NFL and the league’s premier receiver with a legitimate option opposite him in Kevin Walter. The last piece in the puzzle – albeit a big one – is that offensive line. Considering just 2 years ago they sacked David Carr to death, their 2008 total of 32 is an admirable effort. 11.5 of those sacks came from rookie left tackle Duane Brown, but the NFL learning curve is steep and Brown deserves another year before he’s deemed a bust. If Schaub stays healthy this is going to be an extremely high powered offence that will surprise a lot of teams in 2009.

Defense: They can put up points, but can their defense keep them out of shootouts? Packed with youth and talent the pass rush is in place with the outstanding Mario Williams (remember when we all laughed at his selection over Reggie Bush… yeah sorry about that) at end, and MIKE linebacker DeMeco Ryans, Omobi Okoye, USC standout Brian Cushing and veteran Cato June a stellar supporting cast. Their secondary isn’t mindblowing but adequate when paired with that pass rush, so I think they have a great chance at the playoffs in 2009.

Key Games: The Colts will run away with the division so it all comes down to Houston’s double against Tennessee. Outside of the division the Cardinals and Dolphins will provide their toughest challenge.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Tennessee Titans

Offseason: Putting aside Albert Haynesworth’s individual production, what he did best was make everyone else play better. He required constant double teams allowing other defensive linemen room to manoeuvre, effective pressure to be created and hence make the job of the secondary a lot easier. You couldn’t run against Tennessee and you couldn’t pass against Tennessee in 2008 because of him, so even if you think a fat contract will see him regress in Washington don’t underestimate his loss to this team.

Offense: Between 2005 and 2008 the Titans were in post-Eddie George and AirMcNair doldrums. Not even Vince Young could spark this offense, but in 2008 an old man, a fat man and a really fast man gave Tennessee some purpose. The good news is that Chris Johnson could get 1200 yards rushing and a further 500 through the air; the bad news is that when he went down in the playoffs so did the whole Tennessee offense. The Titans may have a crushing offensive line led by Michael Roos, but imagine a world where Chris Johnson goes down injured week 2: the offense is left in the hands of a quarterback who has fewer combined completions in the last 3 seasons than Donovan McNabb had in just 2008, a one dimensional running back with no breakaway ability and a receiving corps led by rookie Kenny Britt. I like athletic rookie TE Jared Cook to turn some heads, but I honestly think the difference between a Chris Johnson and a not-Chris Johnson offense is about 4 wins:  Tennessee can’t afford to lose their talisman.

Defense: Cortland Finnegan and Michael Griffin are outstanding young players who will continue to improve on very promising fledgling careers, but elsewhere this defense is starting to age, and of course, they won’t have Haynesworth sucking up double coverage in 2009. I doubt this unit replicates last year’s numbers, especially with Keith Bulluck, David Thornton, Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch all north of 30, and just as in Baltimore, I feel the cracks will begin to show on this Titans defense in 2009.

Key Games: They’re playing for the final AFC wildcard spot so they need wins against their closest contenders the Jets and Texans. The first 6 weeks of Tennessee’s season is brutal – at Pittsburgh, at the Jets and at the Patriots are the ‘highlights’ of that stretch – so let’s hope a depressing 3-3 opening doesn’t tank their season.

Predicted Record: 9-7

Jacksonville Jaguars

Offseason: Compared to some other bad teams, Jacksonville played a smart game this offseason so credit to them. The Jags finally realised what we all did a long time ago: Matt Jones, Reggie Williams and Dennis Northcutt are probably nice guys, but none of them is a franchise receiver. Is their replacement Tory Holt the answer to Jacksonville’s lengthy search for a standout wideout? I’m not convinced, but it’s a decent gamble considering that just putting on a Rams jersey made you suck in 2008, so Holt may be ready to bounce back to something respectable. They also added three offensive tackles; veteran Tra Thomas and rookies Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton.

Offense: Jacksonville’s offense in 2008 was sad. Not terrible, just sad. The diminutive Maurice Jones Drew has so much talent but couldn’t get it done in 2008, and the same applies for David Garrard. The blame for everything that was sad about the Jaguar offense (15th for the pass, and 18th for the run) can be attributed to a banged up offensive line that missed both guards and leaked far too many sacks. Thomas, Monroe and Britton are all week 1 starters (Britton will likely slide to left guard until Vince Manuwai is fit to perform), so expect MJD and Garrard to bounce back. MJD is perhaps the biggest enigma going into 2009; for a player who has never breached 1000 yards or 200 carries and will be option A in passing situations, you have to wonder if his thumping 5-7 210lb frame can handle 300+ carries and upwards of 60 receptions in a season.

Defense: When they reflected on 2008, ranking 24th against the pass will be what stuck out in the minds of Jacksonville management. Other than that offensive line, Jacksonville are very thin in terms of talent at most positions so struggled desperately when Rashean Mathis couldn’t stay healthy. They haven’t added too much to their secondary in the offseason so I can’t see their fate improving drastically, but one glimmer of hope is a possible breakout season from second year defensive end Derrick Harvey combined with some creative blitzing schemes from defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to help build pressure on the opposing QB.

Key Games: They’re a bad team in a good division, but being paired with the NFC West means they have winnable games against Seattle, St Louis and San Francisco.

Predicted Record: 4-12

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