Sports, Thrill of Victory

What to watch for in the AFC South this season

Can the Titans keep winning when they visit San Diego on Sunday? PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Thursday night marked the beginning of the 2016 regular season. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers faced off with Von Miller and the Denver Broncos in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.

The traditions of NFL fandom are officially back: devoting Sundays to football, agonizing over your favorite team’s performance, and competing online in a fantasy league.

Since Sports and Entertainment Nashville covers the Tennessee Titans, let’s consider the AFC South and its developments through the preseason. The division is guaranteed to send at least one team to the 2016 NFL playoffs.

Houston Texans

In 2015 the Texans won the AFC South with a 9-7 record. Then, in the wild-card game they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 0-30, the fifth worst shutout in postseason history.

The blowout spotlighted the weakness of Houston — offense. By the end of the game the Texans had totaled a mere 226 yards of total offense: 112 yards in the air and 114 yards on the ground. 

Such was the storyline of the Texans in 2015: A Super-Bowl-worthy defense was held back by an offense that suffered from injury to Arian Foster and shuffled between four starting quarterbacks: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden.

JJ Watt and the Texans will once again be a factor in the AFC South race. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

JJ Watt and the Texans will once again be a factor in the AFC South race. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

So during the offseason the Texans signed quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller to bring stability under center. Then, during the Draft, Houston added wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, weapons for Osweiler and aids to DeAndre Hopkins.

The Texans’ offense fared well in the preseason. They led the league in points per game (25.5); Fuller shined among rookies as he totaled 144 receiving yards and two touchdowns; and Osweiler completed 69.2% of his passes for 297 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

On the defensive side of the ball, optimism is high. J.J. Watt passed a physical on Monday and is set to play during the Texans’ opening game after back surgery; Brian Cushing is rumored to be incredible shape; and pass rushers Whitney Mercilus, Vince Wilfork, and Jadeveon Clowney are returning starters.

There are, however, three obstacles between Houston and another AFC South title.

First, each team in the division has addressed weaknesses from last season. Second, Brock Osweiler, despite his preseason performance, has just seven regular season starts under his belt. Third, the Texans’ offensive line will be undermanned in 2016.

Nick Martin, who was set to start at center, will miss the entire season due to an ankle surgery, and Duane Brown, who was set to start at left tackle, has an unknown timetable for return after surgery on his quadricep. Their absences have been felt thus far as the Texans allowed the 4th most sacks in the preseason (11).

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts finished the 2015 season with an 8-8 record; an impressive feat considering that Andrew Luck missed nine games due to injury and considering that the offensive line allowed the second most quarterback hits in the league (118).

The need to improve protection up front was evident. So during the Draft, Indianapolis used four of their eight picks on offensive linemen. Nonetheless, head coach Jim Irsay is still concerned about the team’s front five heading into 2016: “I’m concerned like any fan out there.”

In the Colts’ third preseason game, Irsay had planned to play Andrew Luck through three quarters, but Irsay pulled Luck after the first half since he was hit or sacked nine times on 21 dropbacks.

The guard position is particularly shallow in Indianapolis. The team recently placed guard Hugh Thornton on Injured Reserves, and younger guards Jack Mewhort and Joe Haeg are on week-to-week timetables to return from injury.

The Colts’ offense, despite a lacking front five, seems to be their best unit heading into 2016. Andrew Luck is at full health; Frank Gore carries twelve years of experience at running back; and receivers Donte Moncrief, T.Y. Hilton and Phillip Dorsett are young, talented and fast.

The unit is prone to making big plays. During the preseason, the Colts ranked 1st in passing yards per game (274.2), 9th in total yards per game (331.2), 1st in plays of forty or more yards (5), and 4th in plays of twenty or more yards (12).

The defense, on the other hand, does not look to be as successful as the offense. Last season the Colts ranked 26th in yards allowed per game (379.1), and since then, the team has made minimal changes to their defensive unit. 

Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars should be greatly improved in 2016. PHOTO BY DONN JONES, COURTESY TENNESSEE TITANS

Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars should be greatly improved in 2016. PHOTO BY DONN JONES, COURTESY TENNESSEE TITANS

Cornerback Patrick Robinson was signed during free agency. However, opposing cornerback Vontae Davis is currently injured with a right ankle sprain, and his return is unknown.

Moreover, Robert Mathis looks to be the Colts’ best pass rusher next season, but at 35 years old and coming off an Achilles tendon tear, it is hopeful to assume that Mathis will surpass a ten-sack season. Irsay benched the linebacker through the entire preseason to ensure his health before the regular season opener.

Thus, the Colts look upon Andrew Luck to be their Super Man in 2016. Luck has shown in recent history the ability to mask the deficits of Indianapolis, but he can only do so if he remains healthy behind the team’s injury-riddled offensive line. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars addressed defense this offseason, as help was desperately needed on that side of the ball. Through the past three seasons the team has given up nearly 28 points per game, 2nd most in the league.

So in free agency Jacksonville signed DT Malik Jackson from the Denver Broncos, FS Tashaun Gipson from the Cleveland Browns, and CB Prince Amukamara from the New York Giants. The three players share two Super Bowl victories and a Pro Bowl appearance.

Then, during the Draft, Jacksonville used six of their seven picks on defensive players. Two of those players — Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack — were projected as the best collegiate prospects at cornerback and linebacker.

Although the Jaguars finished the preseason with a 1-3 record, their efforts to improve defense appear successful. The team ranked 16th overall in total defense (306.8 yards per game), eight places better than their total defensive ranking in 2015 (375 yards per game).

It will be interesting too see, however, if this improvement continues into the regular season considering the youth of the defensive unit. Ramsey at starting cornerback, Dante Fowler at starting defensive end, and Jack at backup linebacker will have many responsibilities in their first NFL season. 

Offense, on the other hand, should come easily to the Jags. The passing attack of Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns is one of the youngest and most talented in the league. Last year those three players scored 24 of Jacksonville’s 35 passing touchdowns.

Moreover, Robinson does not appear to be facing a third-year slump. According to Pro Football Focus, Robinson was the top graded wide receiver this preseason despite only 58 snaps.

As the Jaguars begin the regular season, an immediate concern is playing well in September. The past three years Jacksonville has a 1-10 record in the opening month of play, which perennially places the team at the back of the AFC South and requires that they play catch-up later in the season.

Marcus Mariota should take a big step forward in year two for the Titans. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Marcus Mariota should take a big step forward in year two for the Titans. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Tennessee Titans

In 2015 the Titans finished last in the AFC South with a 3-13 record.

Several factors contributed to the team’s struggle: the offensive line allowed the most sacks in the league (54), the secondary gave up big plays because of injuries to cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty; and head coach Ken Wisenhunt was fired halfway into the season.

However, among teams of the AFC South, the Titans responded best to their 2015 deficiencies during the offseason.

Highlights include the hiring of general manager Jon Robinson, head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive line coach Russ Grimm; the acquisition of RB DeMarco Murray, C Ben Jones and FS Rashad Johnson; and selection of OT Jack Conklin, RB Derrick Henry and WR Tajae Sharpe during the Draft.

For these reasons, certain analysts predict that the Titans will be the NFL’s most improved team from the 2015 season to the 2016 season. It is important to note, however, that the Jaguars are also favored to be a most improved team.

During the preseason the Titans’ offense fared well. In four games, the offense line averaged 2.5 sacks allowed — one less than their per game average last season — and the team ranked 2nd in rush yards per game (161) and 6th in total yards per game (345.2).

The Titans’ offense also had the 2nd fewest penalties (20); Derrick Henry was the top graded running back per Pro Football Focus; and Tajae Sharpe led the team in receptions (9) and receiving yards (160).

The other side of play is still a concern for Tennessee though. Their first-team defense allowed a touchdown on three opening drives during the preseason. Two of the drives featured a pass play of 40 or more yards.

Thus, the Titans look to rely on a physical run game, an improved offensive line, and a reliable quarterback in Marcus Mariota next season. If the defense can shore up under the guidance of Hall-of-Famer Dick LaBeau, the team may indeed become the most improved team of 2016.

That feat, however, would not guarantee an AFC South title, as the Texans are favored to repeat as division champions.

Each team in the division begins their season at home on Sunday September 11. The Texans face the Chicago Bears; the Colts face the Detroit Lions; the Jaguars face the Green Bay Packers; and the Titans face the Minnesota Vikings.