2012 NFL Preview: AFC South

The AFC South has been a division dominated by one team and really one man as the Colts and Peyton manning have ruled over the division for years. The Indianapolis Colts have been the constant in the south division for a very long time. A big reason for this has been one of the best QBs in the league in Peyton Manning. With manning at the helm the Colts were able to dominate the division. Manning is a master in controlling an offence as he is one of very few QBs who can look at a defence and change the play on the fly to take advantage of weaknesses he finds. In 2012 though the star of the AFC South conference would not be under centre for the Colts as a neck injury kept him out. With Manning out of the picture the division opened up completely for any team to take advantage of. The season played out and the Colts were the worst team in the league. With the Colts out of the picture the division was wide open but the 2011 season was not very forgiving as every team went through some type of distraction that made it hard for anyone to take advantage. For the Titans it was a contract dispute from their best player that offered their distraction for the season. The Jaguars were hit with ownership issues as a new owner came in and rumours of a move began. Meanwhile the Houston Texans saw so many injuries it seemed that the world was against them all season. The South is a division full of stories almost every year and in 2011 nothing has changed. The dominance of the Colts is over as the division has changed hands. All teams are looking to move on from their 2011 seasons and continue on to the new season with little concern. As the look to move on there will still be plenty of distractions for every team. A new superstar QB, continued ownership concerns, and a team looking to continue their upward swing makes the South an interesting division for the 2012 season.

 

Houston Texans

 

 

 

 

 

The Houston Texans are the one team that began their rise at the right time taking full advantage of an open division. The Texans had struggled since coming into the NFL in 2001 but things seemed to be changing as they approached the 2010s. Still they had to deal with the dominating Colts who were constantly winning the division and moving through their division easily. In 2011 the Texans got their chance though as the Colts had lost their superstar QB in Peyton Manning and the team began struggling. As the Colts became a non factor in the division the Houston Texans took control getting out to an easy lead. Then the season went bad as the injuries began piling up for the Texans. It was not the typical injuries of players that could be replaced either as some of the best players on the team went down. The Texans lost their three biggest players in the 2011 season as QB Matt Schaub, DE Mario Williams, and WR Andre Johnson all went down. This forced the Texans to take a new stance on having the next man up attitude in order to keep the season on track. It was one of the unluckiest seasons for a football team as every big player, besides Brian Cushing, would be standing on the sidelines as the Texans seemed to have the perfect storm to make an impact in the NFL. They did get some luck though as they had been in the worst division in the league in 2011 with no team being able to catch the Texans. As a result the Texans ran away with the division and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The injuries made themselves known in the playoffs though as the Texans lost their first playoff game with T.J. Yates at the helm. The Texans had a rough year but still managed to take advantage of an open division to make the playoffs. This year the Texans look to make the South division their own this time with a healthy team as they hope to begin a long period of dominance.

The Texans will have a few changes but their biggest changes will be a number of players returning from the IR. With a healthy team back the Texans are hoping that they can be even better this year. In 2011 Wade Phillips was introduced as the new defensive coordinator after a stint as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The Texans defence reaped the rewards as it went from the bottom of the league, ranked 30th, to being among the top 5 defences in the league. The Texans defence is based on their ability to get to the QB with a number of elite NFL rushers. The Texans will be missing one of their elite rushers this year though as Mario Williams will no longer be with the team after leaving in free agency. The Texans still boast some great rush threats including linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, replaced Williams during his injury in 2011, as well as defensive lineman J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. The linebacking corps will also have one of the best middle linebackers in the game with Brian Cushing leading the front seven. The secondary of the Texans is relatively unchanged as Danieal Manning and Johnathan Joseph return to lead the defensive backfield. There is one question in the secondary though as Kareem Jackson is still a bit of a wild card with nobody knowing if the 2010 disaster will show up or the steady 2011 pass defender. Meanwhile on offence the Texans will look forward to the return of their two biggest playmakers from the IR. First will be Matt Schaub who has proven that he is truly one of the best QBs in the league. He will also have his favorite target back in Andre Johnson as the tandem will be back in one of the biggest pass happy offences in the league. The running game is no slouch either despite being a pass first team as Arian Foster, another injured player in 2011, will lead the charge. Foster will look to remain healthy and will likely work in tandem with Ben Tate. The offence will be a force once again but the question will be if they can stay healthy enough to complete a full season. The Special Teams the Texans will go with a rookie in Randy Bullock while the return game is serviceable but nothing special. The Texans are a strong team once again this year as they will lean on their offence. Still there is this overwhelming concern that injuries will continue to be a big story again but with a weak division the Texans will likely win again with playoff success dependant on the ability to stay healthy and continue their upwards wing.

 

Strength:
Defence
– Wade Phillips’ defensive mind has shown itself in 2011 and with one more year to work on the defence Phillips will likely add more to the playbook creating an even better plan for the 2012 season as the defence will be the key to this team

 

Weakness:
Offensive Line
– The offensive line is the only real weakness of the Texans as they depend on great protection to be able to pass and run but this year the right side of the line will undergo some major changes giving some worry to the Texans ability to run their offence

 

Biggest Addition:
Whitney Mercilus, DE/LB (Draft)
– The defence prides itself on the ability to rush the QB and adding Mercilus will be an attempt to add another one as they look to be successful in converting a lineman to a rush linebacker in hopes that they can have yet another weapon on the defence

 

Biggest Loss:
Mario Williams, LB/DE (Free Agent, Buf)
– After an attempt to convert one of the best defensive ends in the league to a linebacker Williams looked like he was finally getting it but an injury ended his 2011 season early and with disagreements over his contract Williams left as they lost one of their best rushers

 

Indianapolis Colts

 

 

 

 

 

The Colts are used to being the best team in the division every single year as they boasted one of the best offences in the league. At the forefront of this offence was their QB Peyton Manning who has been considered one of the best QBs in the league. For years Manning guided the Colts to the playoffs and even led the team to their first Super Bowl in 36 years. In 2011 the Colts showed just how important that Peyton Manning was and showed what can go wrong when you build a team around one player. Manning had been having neck problems throughout the 2010 season and in the offseason he had surgery in order to repair his neck and extend his playing career. As the 2011 season approached Manning was not getting any better and by week 1 Manning had yet to recover for the surgery. This trend would continue as Manning continued to get surgeries and treatments to repair his neck and would never step onto the field for the Colts. The Colts attempted to move on without their superstar but it did not work out. The offence suffered without its leader to change plays and adjust to coverages while the defence showed that they were built to play with a lead and not from behind. The Colts only managed two wins all season, their first only came in week 15. The team was clearly not the same without Manning but as the losses piled up a new discussion started. The Colts were clearly one of the worst teams in the league in 2011 but if they ended the season in last place they would have a shot at one of the most NFL ready QBs to come into a draft ever. The debate started as to whether the Colts should keep Manning and pass on top draft pick Andrew Luck or if they should take Andrew Luck and part ways with Manning. After a long offseason the decision was finally made to move on from the Peyton Manning era and start a brand new era in the 2012 season.

In 2012 the Colts are looking for the young QB to be the second coming of Peyton Manning and to lead the Colts back to their domination of the division. Despite his great preseason the regular season is a different beast and Luck will likely see some struggles in his first year. With a new QB and a new head coach in Chuck Pagano the Colts will likely be very conservative in their offence to reduce mistakes. This means that both tight ends Coby Fleener, a teammate of Luck’s at Stanford, and Dwayne Allen will see a lot of work in the middle of the field. On the outside Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie will provide some veteran experience that can help Luck in his rookie year. The Colts will also see a return to the run game in order to take the pressure off of Luck. The rushing game will be led by Donald Brown and Mewelde Moore but it will not be the force it needs to be to give the support that Luck may need. The defence will be going through a period of adjustment under Pagano who will slowly work a new 3-4 scheme into the team. As the team switches to the 3-4 scheme both Mathis and Freeney will move to the outside linebacker position. For Mathis this change will likely be fine while Freeney may have a tough time and could end up only being on the field for the 4-3 defence. Changing the defence is a way to look at the biggest problem in getting to the QB as the Colts look to get a lot more pressure on QBs this year. While a lot of focus centres around the pass rush the Colts did take a look at run stopping too adding a defensive standout from the CFL in Jerrell Freeman who impressed enough in the preseason to become the starting inside linebacker. The biggest concern for the Colts on defence will be the secondary as cornerbacks Justin King and Jerraud Powers are unproven. They will need to lean on the safeties as Antoine Bethea and new addition Tom Zbikowski look to be a good part of the defence. In the special teams the Colts will lean on the dependable Adam Vinatieri to provide more points while the Colts hope T.Y. Hilton or LaVon Brazil can breathe some life into the return game. The Colts will be better with Andrew Luck under centre but the young QB cannot fix the problems on defence. The Colts will not go winless for so long but they will not make the playoffs although they look to be on the right track.

 

Strength:
Pass Offence
– There really is no big advantage for the Colts but the addition of Andrew Luck has added a lot more to the teams as he will be able to lead a much better passing offence with new tight ends and veteran wide receivers

 

Weakness:
Defensive Pressure
– The Colts have had problems getting to the QB even with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on the ends as the Colts will look to improve this aspect in 2012 but until they prove they have changed QBs will not fear the pass rush from the Colts

 

Biggest Addition:
Andrew Luck, QB (Draft)
– With the loss of their longtime QB Peyton Manning, Luck will be the new face of the Colts as he is already being compared to his predecessor and will be watched closely all year as the #1 draft pick

 

Biggest Loss:
Peyton Manning, QB (Free Agent, Den)
– Peyton Manning was the Colts as he was the main reason to why they were so successful over the past few years and without him the Colts are forced to go with inexperience and questions rather than a more sure thing

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

 

 

 

 

The Jacksonville Jaguars have been one of the few struggling teams in the NFL as they have failed to pull in any fans. The NFL is a strong one as almost every team has been able to stay afloat financially. Usually in big leagues the small market teams suffer the most as they fail to pull in fans and other revenue that can allow them to keep up with player salaries and the cost of running a franchise. The NFL is different as the smallest market team, the Green Bay Packers, is one of the most stable. The rest of the league generally is able to make this type of money but even in the strongest leagues there are weak links. The Jaguars are that weak link in the NFL as they have failed to keep up with the rest of the teams. Last year was no different as the team went up for sale with the owner simply unable to keep up with the rising costs of owning a franchise. The sale was completed mid-season as Shad Khan bought the team and launched another controversy in the NFL. With Los Angeles making a push to own another NFL franchise the new owner of the Jaguars entered the conversation. The Jaguars became the frontrunners for relocation and when Shad Khan bought the team and did not have to sign anything stating that he would have to keep the team in Jacksonville. This opened the door as the rumours continue to swirl around the team moving to L.A. and if they cannot pick up their play the rumours will continue to swirl and build. The Jaguars finished the 2011 season with a 5-11 record that was just good enough to stay out of the basement but not good enough to challenge for anything. A new QB and revamped teams did nothing to help their situation as the Jaguars once again stayed at the bottom of the division. The Jags had a young team last year and with one more year under their belt they are hoping that they can turn things around for the 2012 season.

This year Mike Mularkey will take over on the sidelines as he takes over from only the second head coach the team has ever known. Last year change was not a great thing for the Jags as they decided to use their new QB rookie Blaine Gabbert after only a few weeks into the season. After struggling in his rookie season Gabbert will get his shot to improve with his first full offseason as a starter and a new coaching team to help him work out the kinks. The Jaguars will also see improvements in their receiving corps after drafting Justin Blackmon in the first round. Blackmon should provide an immediate impact in the passing game while new additions Laurent Robinson and last year’s top receiver Mike Thomas will be solid threats. The running game has been a key to the Jags offence in the past but this year it could be in trouble. Their leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew has held out for most of training camp and could have a season much like Chris Johnson did in 2011. If that is what happens MJD will take at least half the season to get back into a groove even if he decides to come back before the start of the season. Rashad Jennings will take the majority of the snaps if MJD does not return. Mel Tucker returns as the defensive coordinator as he looks to build off of a decent season for the defence in 2011. On the defensive line their best rusher Aaron Kampman is coming off of another knee surgery, his third in three years, as his health is a big question. Jeremy Mincey will need to take on a larger role along with rookie Andre Branch if the line hopes to put more pressure on the offence. The secondary is another spot with a number of questions for the Jags as Dawan Landry and Dwight Lowrey are good safeties but not great. At the cornerback position Derek Cox returns while Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis round out the corners in the nickel package. The Jags do have one stable group though as the linebackers will be their saving grace in the defence. Daryl Smith, Clint Session, and defensive leader Paul Posluszny will all be back to help lead the defence. In the special teams Josh Scobee will be back to return kicks while Mike Thomas looks to become an elite returner. The Jags are at the very beginning of a rebuilding stage and it will take them some time to get back on their feet. Expect them to be better this year but another losing season will likely be the result of the changes and struggles of this young team.

 

Strength:
Linebackers
– The Linebacking corps is the best part of this team with Posluszny, Session, and Smith all returning to leave a defence with a lot of holes that will need to be fixed as this group will be heavily leaned on if the Jags hope to be better this year

 

Weakness:
Quarterback
– Blaine Gabbert struggled in his rookie season as he had a rough time leading an NFL offence and going into the 2012 season he will be the biggest question on the team as he will need to step up if the Jags hope to have a chance this year

 

Biggest Addition:
Justin Blackmon, WR (Draft)
– Blackmon was easily the best wide receiver in the NCAA in 2011 and with the Jags having little to no big play receivers the size and strength of Blackmon should provide an immediate weapon for their young QB

 

Biggest Loss:
Drew Coleman, CB (Free Agent)
– The cornerbacks are another question on the Jags team and the loss of this veteran will not help them as he was the best CB on the team last year but was cut after the team hedged their bets on Aaron Ross

 

Tennessee Titans

 

 

 

 

 

The Titans have been in rough shape as an organization in the last few years and it all started with Vince Young. With Young in the backup QB position the Titans continued to see issues as head coach Jeff Fisher and young butted heads multiple times. In 2011 the Titans looked for change as jeff Fisher was gone and so was Vince Young. The Titans were trying to take advantage of a chance to win the division while it was in disrepair. With Indianapolis on the decline the Titans were looking to take their shot at the division title. The season started out with the disappearance of two QBs but they remedied the problem quickly. They signed Matt Hasselbeck and drafted Jake Locker to make up for their losses. With the new additions many though that this was Tennessee’s year as they had proven that they were a team to watch and with a good QB at the helm this became even more true. What they didn’t foresee was the contract issues they would have with Chris Johnson who while under contract held out for a new deal. Johnson left the 2010 season as the best rusher in the league and thought that he deserved more money. The lockout and the holdout held Johnson out of camp until the Titans signed a new contract with him just before week 1 of the regular season. With Johnson back on the team the Titans expected to get back on track and win the division but Johnson could not get back to his dominant self. Johnson took almost half a season to get back into football shape. By then it was too late as the Titans could not push over the Houston Texans and win the division. Instead they finished the season with a 9-7 record and in second place but out of the playoffs. The Titans are looking to make only a few big changes in 2012 as they hope that the steadiness of the team in this year’s camp will help them to finally make a challenge at the division title.

In 2011 the Titans signed Matt Hasselbeck to provide a veteran presence and a solid offensive leader. They also drafted Jake Locker as a backup plan and as a replacement for the veteran Hasselbeck. The plan was a good one but what they didn’t expect was that Locker would impress everyone so much he would be considered for the starting role. The Titans went into the offseason with two potential starting QBs as second year head coach Mike Munchak left the starting job up for grabs. As the preseason wore on Jake Locker beat the old veteran for the job and was named the starting QB for week 1. He will have some comfort in his first year as a starter with the best line in the NFL that is a particular point of pride for their head coach. Locker will also have a number of weapons to choose from in the passing game as Kenny Britt returns, despite being suspended one game, and Nate Washington along with rookie Kendall Wright who could make an impact in his first year. Even with these weapons there is no doubt that the Titans will be looking at their ground game to lead the offence. Chris Johnson is back in the fold and has a full offseason this year to prepare him to return to the top of the rushing list. On defence the Titans lost two of the biggest playmakers on their team in Cortland Finnegan and Jason Jones. Jones will be missed on the defensive line but Kamerion Wimbley will fill in as a great veteran while Derrick Morgan looks to shed his underachieving ways. They still lack a big playmaker on the front line and will be hard pressed to really get on opposing QBs. In the secondary the loss of Finnegan will be a tough one to overcome but the Titans will have some players to step up. Michael Griffin will be the most important of these backs as he will be the veteran presence for a younger team that includes Alterraun Verner, Jason Mccourty, and fellow veteran Jordan Babineaux. The Linebacking corps will be a mix of young and old with Will Witherspoon leading the way and the physical Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers follow close by. The special teams Rob Bironas will be back with his sure foot and Marc Mariani will look to adjust to the kickoff rules to provide an impact. The Titans are a more stable team from last and that means they should be better but their defence may hold them back. The Titans will be at the top of the division as they will fight for the top and may have to hope for a wild card spot.

 

Strength:
Offensive Line
– The promotion of Mike Munchak to the head coach continued the tradition of the Titans in having one of the best lines in the league and nobody is happier about that than Chris Johnson who appreciates the massive holes left by the hogs up front

 

Weakness:
Defensive Playmakers
– The Titans lost Cortland Finnegan and Jason Jones and when they left so did the two biggest playmakers of the team as the Titans will need a big effort from the entire team with a lack of big players to change games

 

Biggest Addition:
Kendall Wright, WR (Draft)
– The addition of Wright will provide yet another weapon for the young QB in Jake Locker as the Titans look to make the offence a bit more even especially if Chris Johnson cannot return to his old form

 

Biggest Loss:
Cortland Finnegan, CB (Free Agent, STL)
– The defensive secondary will miss the physicality and talents of Finnegan as he was one of the few players on the defence that could change the game in one play and the Titans will find it rough to replace him

 

Prediction:
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Indianapolis Colts
4. Jacksonville Jaguars

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