With the Position Breakdown series in full swing, the next division under the microscope is the AFC South. Here’s a defensive position-by-position breakdown of the AFC South, with “the best” at each position followed by “the rest” in descending order.
Quick note: More or less I will try to standardize some of these evaluations to make up for the differences in defensive sets (especially since sub packages are now the norm for most NFL defenses). For example, the Leo position in Gus Bradley’s defense is technically a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Robert Mathis is technically a pass rushing outside linebacker, but he plays with his hand in the dirt on most snaps. Every defensive coordinator has a different system and almost every defense plays some subset of 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, and dime.
AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense
The Best: HOU The Rest: IND, TEN, JAX
There’s about as big of a gap here as there is at the quarterback position. The Texans have one of the best defensive lines in the league. What was a scary defensive line in both 2013 and 2014 now gets Clowney back from injury, and possible Hall of Famer Vince Wilfork to come take up room in the middle. Translation: it used to be Watt against the offense, and Watt usually won. Now he actually has help. That should be terrifying.
You can make a very strong argument that J.J. Watt is the best player in the league, comparatively, at any position. If he can maintain his production and stay healthy, he will be a surefire Hall of Famer. I thought he should have won MVP last season. So… this isn’t really an indictment of any other defensive lines as much as Houston is just so clearly superior it’s barely worth talking about.
Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis are all looking at very average defensive lines. For the Titans and Jags, its more about developing the players on their roster and continuing to build for the future. For the Colts, it’s a bit mystifying. After getting run over in the playoffs two years in a row by the New England Patriots – whose 2014 leading rusher, by the way, racked up half of his season total in the regular season matchup with the Colts – Indy did little to improve their run defense. It’s not like LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are very good, and I would be very worried as a Colts fan that this line didn’t improve. Cole and Mathis are not run stuffers. They need size in the middle, and while Arthur Jones is a decent nose tackle, they were terrible even with him last year in the AFC Championship Game.
The Best: IND The Rest: TEN, HOU, JAX
Let’s kick this off by saying that it’s a huge bummer that Jacksonville’s #3 pick Dante Fowler Jr., tore his ACL on day one of rookie mini-camp. He is an impressive player with a ton of athletic gifts that I was very much looking forward to watching in the NFL. Oh well, there’s always next year.
Putting Indianapolis here is a perfect example of what I was talking about with the differences in positions between defenses. Indy’s two best “linebackers” are edge rushers Robert Mathis and Trent Cole, who are, technically, linebackers, even though they spend most of their time functionally as defensive linemen. The truth behind most defensive sets in 2015 is that the sub package has become the standard defense because of the proliferation of pass-happy offenses across the NFL (nickel packages account for close to 50% of snaps, with Dime coming in at another 10-12%). These defenses come, usually, in three forms: a 4-2-5, with four down lineman and two linebackers, a 3-3-5, with three linebackers, one of which is usually functioning as a fourth lineman, or a 2-4-5, with interior linemen on the field and extra linebackers to provide versatility with blitz packages and zone coverages – but again, at least one of those outside linebackers usually has his hand in the dirt. However, Indy also has D’Qwell Jackson, a very good coverage linebacker and all-around defender, who helps distinguish their #1 spot here.
Houston is the lone team without any of these outside linebacker pass rush specialists – because their defensive line is the best in the league. They have filled the back half of their front seven with versatile guys like Brian Cushing and Whitney Mercilus – guys who can cover running backs and some tight ends down field, do a good job stuffing the run, and are competent enough on the rush to get creative with blitz schemes (which isn’t going to be necessary often given the strength of their defensive line).
Tennessee got a huge score with Brian Orakpo this season, who, lining up across from 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, may actually pose a threat to Indy’s superiority. Morgan has only been playing outside linebacker for a few seasons but has significantly improved his coverage skills and is one of the better young linebackers in the league. Orakpo can be an extremely dangerous edge rusher, when he can stay on the field. The big question with this division is health. On paper, Indy looks superior with that edge rush combo of Cole and Mathis. Can Mathis regain his form after an Achilles tear? Is Trent Cole too old? In Tennessee, will Brian Orakpo stay on the field? Can Morgan make another leap? These are the questions that will define the linebackers of this division.
The Best: IND The Rest: TEN, JAX, HOU
Solid number one cornerbacks have become a prime commodity in what is increasingly a passing league. And while teams can always find places to fill in holes behind that #1 corner, being able to put a player on an island against a receiver offers massive benefits to the rest of your defense. It’s how the Super Bowl Champion Patriots structured their defense last season around Revis, and it is increasingly becoming the norm for teams that don’t have a freakish amount of talent behind their corners (i.e., everyone but the Seahawks).
Vontae Davis put on a clinic last year in the Divisional round versus the Broncos. Peyton Manning kept attacking him, and Davis kept winning his matchup. He finished with four passes defended, and that undersells the game he had. Davis, it seems, has finally lived up to his potential, and easily made his first Pro Bowl in 2014. I would rate him as a top 10 corner in the league – and, if he plays as well this year as he did last year – that could turn into top 5. He’s tenacious, he works hard, has great footwork and positioning, and he knows how to make a play. He’s the best corner in this division and Indianapolis gets top billing because of it.
Not to be sold short, Tennessee and Jacksonville have developing #1 corners of their own. Jason McCourty – Devin’s twin brother – has become a very competent corner in the Titans’ secondary. He’s probably the second best in the division by a hair over Jacksonville’s Davon House, who had a great season last year filling in on a decimated Green Bay secondary and who takes over immediately as Jacksonville’s #1 starter. McCourty is more of a known commodity and is playing a system he has played in before, so he gets the nod over House, even though House is playing in a Gus Bradley system that is, by all accounts, very easy to play in and very easy to perform in.
Filling out the list is Houston, who has a prime talent in Kareem Jackson that hasn’t been able to put it together consistently. After a 2012 season where he had 16 pass deflections and four interceptions, his stats have dropped significantly. He is still a good corner, and hopefully he can continue to put it together and make a leap this season for a Texans team that will be extremely dangerous on defense if Jackson can hold up his end of the field.
The Best: TEN The Rest: HOU, IND, JAX
Michael Griffin is quietly one of the league’s top safeties, and the only safety in the AFC South who has made the Pro Bowl. Last year he had 112 tackles, with 85 of them solo, and three sacks. He also had four pass deflections and two interceptions, which is a low total for him. He is a very fundamentally sound player who is as comfortable stuffing the run as he is playing center field, and his statistics place him in the realm of the best safeties in the game. To top it off, he’s only missed two career games. Griffin is far and away the class of this position in the division and the man lining up across from him, Da’Noris Searcy, comes from a very competent Buffalo secondary where he did a decent job filling in for the departed Jairus Byrd last season. Together, they should be a very good safety combo.
Mike Adams is the second best safety here and provides a good amount of solidity on the back end. He has been a solid NFL safety for years and provides consistency and stability for the Colts defense. Dwight Lowery is also a solid veteran. Luckily for these safeties, they play with Vontae Davis, which makes their lives a lot easier and allows them to be used to their strengths. Indianapolis’ secondary as a whole looks very solid and should continue to improve as long as Mike Adams doesn’t show slippage in his 11th season.
Houston has to hope that its gamble on Stevie Brown pays off. Brown had a fantastic 2012 season before missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL and coming back slowly in 2014. If he can regain some semblance of that 2012 form, he can be a big player for the Texans. His counterpart, Rahim Moore, did a good job in Denver – nothing spectacular, but solid – and should provide competent safety play. He’s better in coverage than he is as a tackler due to his slight frame.
In Jacksonville, as usual, the outlook doesn’t look great. They scooped up perennial backup Sergio Brown and currently list him as their first-team free safety. Brown isn’t terrible by any means, but it seems like a big jump in expectation from starting only because of injury to being an every-down defensive player. A lot of times those adjustments expose less experienced players’ weaknesses so the Jaguars have to hope that the good of what they saw will show itself more than the bad. Johnathan Cyprien will return for his third season at strong safety and he is expected to be ready for Week 1 after suffering a broken hand in Jacksonville’s preseason opener. The team has high expectations for him, as Gus Bradley wants him to become the Jaguars version of Kam Chancellor.
The Best: IND The Rest: HOU, JAX, TEN
I think Chuck Pagano gets the nod here mainly because of his track record. This might not be fair, given that he has Andrew Luck and no one else in the division does, but he’s done enough on the field to get the top nod in the division. I worry that, for a former secondary coach and defensive coordinator, there is far too little focus on the defense, but that’s something I’d have to take up with Ryan Grigson, the general manager, rather than Pagano.
This is a division with, given the mediocrity, a high amount of coaching pedigree. This means that, as bad as the AFC South has been, it should shoot upwards in the next few years, just as the NFC West did after an influx of coaching talent (going from the worst division in football to the best). Bill O’Brien has been quite good as the head coach of the Texans – slowly amassing talent and improving steadily. The Texans defense will be one of the best in the league this year. Gus Bradley has had to take the unfortunate path of paying a premium for marginal talent in order to lure people to Jacksonville, but he was the architect of a Seahawks defense that was formed mostly of cast-offs and “draft risks” before coalescing into one of the league’s greatest defenses ever. If anyone can take the lemon of the Jaguars franchise and turn it into lemonade, we have to believe it’s Bradley. Ken Whisenhunt, on his second stint as a head coach, has always been renowned as a quarterback whisperer (having coached a young Big Ben to a Super Bowl, along with rescuing the careers of Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers), and now he gets new toy Marcus Mariota to unleash on the league.